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Swedish poet Transtromer wins Nobel in literature

The 2011 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded on Thursday to Tomas Transtromer of Sweden, whose surrealistic works about the mysteries of the human mind won him wide recognition as the most influential Scandinavian poet of recent decades.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The 2011 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded on Thursday to Tomas Transtromer of Sweden, whose surrealistic works about the mysteries of the human mind won him wide recognition as the most influential Scandinavian poet of recent decades.

Characterized by powerful imagery, Transtromer's poems are often built around his own experiences and infused with his love of music and nature. His later poems are darker, probing existential questions of life, death and disease.

Transtromer is considered a master of metaphor, weaving powerful images into his poems without much embellishment. The award citation noted that his collections "are characterized by economy."

"Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams. Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveler sinks toward the green zone of morning," reads the prelude to "The Great Enigma," his last collection, released in Swedish in 2004 and two years later in English.

"Things flare up. From the viewpoint of the quivering lark he is aware of the huge root systems of the trees, their swaying underground lamps," Transtromer wrote. "But aboveground there's greenery — a tropical flood of it — with lifted arms, listening to the beat of an invisible pump."

A psychologist and avid amateur pianist, Transtromer (TRAWN-stroh-mur), 80, suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him half-paralyzed and largely unable to speak, but he continued to write, publishing "The Sorrow Gondola" in 1996 and the "The Great Enigma." He has since retired from writing.

Transtromer has been a perennial favorite for the Nobel and in recent years Swedish journalists have waited outside Transtromer's apartment in Stockholm on the day the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award is announced.

"Very good," a smiling Transtromer told reporters when asked how he felt. He gave mostly one-syllable answers to reporters' questions, seated next to his wife, Monica, who filled in the details.

The couple had sat down in front of the TV to watch a live broadcast of the literature announcement when the phone rang, just five minutes before it was to start, she said.

"It was a very big surprise," she said. "Tomas, I know you were surprised. Despite the speculation for so many years you haven't really taken it seriously."

She said that, most of all, Transtromer was happy that the prize went to poetry for the first time since Wislawa Szymborska of Poland won in 1996.

Transtromer is the first Swede to receive the literature prize since Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson shared it in 1974. Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, has said that it is especially cautious about awarding Swedish writers out of fear of being seen as biased.

"I think we've been quite thoughtful and haven't been rash," Englund said after the award was announced.

"One should congratulate the academy, that finally, in the last minute, dares to give the prize to Transtromer, despite the fact he is Swedish," Swedish poet Bob Hansson wrote on his blog after the announcement. "The Swedish modesty, or the Swedish fear of being Swedish, has postponed Transtromer's award by at least 10 years."

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said the award made him "happy and proud," and he hoped it would draw global attention to Swedish literature.

The Swedish Academy has also been criticized for being too Euro-centric, ignoring writers from other parts of the world. Seven of the last 10 winners have been Europeans.

While critics are impressed by the beauty of his writing, some have criticized it for a lack of social commentary, so often found in the works of other Nobel winners, including last year's laureate Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru.

Humble and unpretentious, Transtromer has always avoided political debates and has stayed away from the public eye as much as possible.

"I think dad above all thinks this is great for his readers," his daughter, Paula Transtromer, said about the prize. "That's most important to him."

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Transtromer was raised by his mother, a teacher, after she divorced his father — a journalist. He started writing poetry while studying at the Sodra Latin school in Stockholm.

His work was published in several journals before he published his first book of poetry, "17 poems," in 1954, winning much acclaim in Sweden.

He studied literature, history, poetics, the history of religion and psychology at Stockholm University, and later divided his time between poetry and his work as a psychologist. Between 1960 and 1966 he worked as psychologist at Roxtuna, an institution for juvenile offenders.

"A lot of great poets don't do anything but writing poetry," Transtromer's longtime friend, Swedish author Lars Gustafsson said. "But here you have a man who has worked really hard his entire life as a psychologist and who has been writing on Saturday afternoons and in his spare time, often in small, cramped rooms."

"I think his readers also experience him in that way. His poetry is very elementary. It is about things that nearly all people share, such as dreams," Gustafsson added.

Staffan Bergsten, who wrote a biography on Transtrom published this year, said his work is characterized by a combination of the ordinary — people, nature — and the feeling that "there's something secretive underneath."

"No strange words, nothing like that. Anyone can understand it at some level. But then there are other dimensions," he said.

Transtromer's most famous works include the 1966 "Windows and Stones," in which he depicts themes from his many travels, and "Baltics" from 1974.

Since the 1950's, Transtromer has had a close friendship with American poet Robert Bly, who translated many of his works into English. In 2001, Transtromer's Swedish publishing house Bonniers published the correspondence between the two writers in the book "Air Mail."

Earlier this year, Bonniers released a collection of his works between 1954 and 2004 to celebrate the poet's 80th birthday.

"We have waited and waited, we had nearly stopped hoping (for a Nobel) but still not given up the last strand of hope," said Anna Tillgren, spokeswoman for Bonniers. "We are overwhelmed. This is the happiest day ever for many of us working at the publishing house."

Dan Halperin, publisher of Ecco, one of Transtromer's U.S. publishers and an imprint of HarperCollins, also welcomed the award, saying Transtromer's poetry is unique: "dense, rich and completely its own thing."

On Thursday the availability of Transtromer's work in English was highly limited, making any post-Nobel sales bump difficult. Copies of "The Great Enigma," "The Half-Finished Heaven" and his "Selected Poems" were out of stock on and no digital editions exist.

British bookmaker Ladbrokes said a surge of late bets on Thursday had made Transtromer the 4/6 favorite for the prize.

"He was second favorite to begin with and stayed quite prominent throughout," said spokesman Alex Donohue.

"This morning he became the favorite after a surge of late bets, several of which were from Sweden," he said, adding the betting pattern wasn't suspicious.

"The nearer you get to the event, there are always going to be people who have an idea of what is going on ... we're certainly not suggesting anything untoward was going on."

The Nobel Prize, considered one of the highest accolades in literature, is given only to living writers. The academy's choices sometimes spark heated debate among literature experts.

Some of its previous picks were obscure even to literature experts, while others were widely celebrated authors decorated with numerous other awards.

Acclaimed writers who never won the Nobel include Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Graham Greene.


Karl Ritter in Stockholm and AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.