Modern Swedish literature

Swedish is one of the ten most translated languages in the world when it comes to works of fiction. Between 2006 and 2010, more than 3,300 titles were translated into other languages. International interest has been aroused primarily by crime writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. They have maintained a classic tradition in Swedish literature, based on a critical appraisal of contemporary society.

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Modern Swedish literature

Swedish is one of the ten most translated languages in the world when it comes to works of fiction. Between 2006 and 2010, more than 3,300 titles were translated into other languages. International interest has been aroused primarily by crime writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. They have maintained a classic tradition in Swedish literature, based on a critical appraisal of contemporary society.

Crime and social criticism

Sales of Swedish novels abroad have increased dramatically in recent years. Total revenue has risen from around SEK 60 million (USD 8.5 million, EUR 6.6 million) per year in the 1990s to approximately SEK 150 million per year in both 2010 and 2011. In Sweden, the list of literary agents working mostly to sell rights on foreign markets has grown considerably since the 1990s. Today, Swedish literature is translated into around 50 languages, primarily Danish, German, Norwegian, Finnish, English, Dutch and Polish. Half the books translated belong in the ‘Nordic Noir’ genre – also known as Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

But even before crime took over, Swedish novels were popular internationally. Widely translated authors such as Kerstin Ekman, Marianne Fredriksson and P.O. Enquist achieved considerable success in the 1980s and 1990s. At its height, Fredriksson’s book Anna, Hanna and Johanna was the fourth most-sold book in the world.

Paving the way

The pioneers of modern Swedish crime fiction are Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who between 1965 and 1975 wrote ten novels featuring detective Martin Beck. Their books were the first in the genre to analyse the challenges of a developing society from the perspective of those left behind in the modernisation process. Sjöwall and Wahlöö paved the way for the rich flora of Swedish crime novels written since, many of which have been made into films or TV series.

The tradition that originated with Sjöwall and Wahlöö is clearly evident in Henning Mankell’s books about Inspector Kurt Wallander. Mankell opened the door to the international market, and the social criticism in his novels was an important reason for their success. His books have sold more than 40 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. They have also been filmed, both in Swedish and in the British television series starring Kenneth Branagh.

One of the best illustrations of the Swedish crime fiction phenomenon is the Millennium trilogy (Millenium-trilogin). Stieg Larsson’s series created an instant sensation worldwide and came to top bestseller lists in many countries. Larsson, who died in 2004, shared many personal traits with his hero, Mikael Blomkvist, including being an investigative political reporter. The Millennium trilogy has been filmed twice, once by Sweden and once by Hollywood.

Leif GW Persson and Liza Marklund also weave social criticism into their books. Persson, a criminologist, is one of Sweden’s most established crime writers. Many of his cases touch upon the 1986 murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, and a frequent theme is incompetence and corruption among police offi-cers, civil servants and politicians.

Marklund made her debut in 1998 with Deadline (Sprängaren), the first book in a series of nine about the investigative reporter Annika Bengtzon. Marklund has inspired other women to write crime fiction and their number has increased dramatically since her debut. Between 1991 and 1997, there were only two crime novels written by women released. In 2012, there were over 20.

One of Sweden’s most successful crime writers is Camilla Läckberg. Since her debut in 2003 with The Ice Princess (Isprinsessan), she has sold 5 million books in 30 countries.

Jens Lapidus, Åsa Larsson and the couple behind the pseudonym Lars Kepler – Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril.

Photos: Thomas Karlsson, Anna-Lena Ahlström, Anette Nantell

Other international successes

Other writers who have found success abroad are Håkan Nesser and Arne Dahl. Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye (Det grovmaskiga nätet), published in 1993, was the first in the Maardam series, ten books about Inspector Van Veeteren. Arne Dahl is a pseudonym for Jan Arnald. Dahl has written a series of eleven novels about the A-group, a special unit in the Swedish police dealing with international crime. The series has been translated in 20 languages and five of the books have been filmed.

Åke Edwardson’s novels about Inspector Erik Winter have been translated into some 20 languages, and several have become movies. Åsa Larsson made her mark in the world of crime fiction starting with her debut novel Sun Storm (Solstorm), the first in a series of books about lawyer Rebecka Martinsson.

Marie Jungstedt first became known in 2003 with Unseen (Den du inte ser). Since then she has written ten books about Police Inspector Anders Knutas. Her novels have been translated into more than 15 languages, and also given rise to a German TV series.

Karin Alvtegen’s five books have established her reputation worldwide, with translation rights sold in 30 countries. Her second book, Missing (Saknad), has been made into a British TV miniseries.

Jens Lapidus has been tremendously successful with three novels set in the criminal underworld and in a fast-paced, young and hip Stockholm. The novels have been sold to 30 countries and have also generated a trilogy of films.

Under the pseudonym of Lars Kepler, Stockholm couple Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril have written grim, nightmarish thrillers. The first, The Hypnotist (Hypnotisören), was released in 2009. It has been sold to 23 countries and has also been made into a movie.

Working-class author Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about Swedes emigrating to the US was made into a movie in 1971.

Photo: Skånereportage

Fiction steeped in tradition

Swedish writers have long been good storytellers. Authors such as August Strindberg and Selma Lagerlöf have left an indelible mark.

Among the classic writers of the 20th century best known for their accounts of working-class life are Eyvind Johnson, Ivar Lo-Johansson, Vilhelm Moberg, Artur Lundkvist, Harry Martinson, Jan Fridegård, Moa Martinson and Elin Wägner. Moberg was widely acclaimed for The Emigrants (Utvandrarna), a series of novels about Swedes who migrated to the US in the mid-19th century. Wägner’s themes include women’s rights, women’s suffrage, and peace and environment issues, and paved the way for Swedish feminist fiction.

In the 1960s, political activism increased in Sweden and documentary novels became popular, with P.O. Enquist and Sara Lidman the leading names. Two other prominent writers of social critique are P.C. Jersild and Jan Guillou. Jersild tends to write idea-based novels, such as House of Babel (Babels hus), in which he criticises industrial-scale hospital care. His latest book, Ypsilon, was published in 2012. Guillou, who is also a journalist, is a controversial polemicist. As an author he is best known for his books about Swedish agent Carl Hamilton, and his historical novels about the Knight Templar Arn Magnusson. Both series have been filmed.

Kerstin Ekman penned a series of novels about working-class women, of which the first part, Witches’ Rings (Häxringarna) came out in 1974. Among her other leading works are Blackwater (Händelser vid vatten) and a trilogy, The Wolfskin (Vargskinnet), about social development in northern Sweden. Ekman was elected a member of the Swedish Academy in 1978, but left in 1989 in protest at its failure to support Salman Rushdie over the Satanic Verses controversy.

Torgny Lindgren is a member of the Swedish Academy and his books have been translated into 30 languages. His breakthrough came in 1982 with The Way of a Serpent (Ormens väg på hälleberget), which describes life in Västerbotten, in northern Sweden, at the end of the 19th century.

Journalist and author Majgull Axelsson has written numerous documentary books about the developing world. Her first novel, Far away from Nifelheim (Långt borta från Nifelheim), came out in 1994.

Gellert Tamas is a Swedish journalist and author of several works of non-fiction, the best-known being The Laser Man – A Story About Sweden (Lasermannen – En berättelse om Sverige). It tells of John Ausonius, a convicted racist murderer who shot at eleven people with immigrant backgrounds, killing one, in the early 1990s.

Katarina Mazetti has written books in different genres. Several of them have been filmed and many have been translated into numerous languages. Her book Benny & Shrimp (Grabben i graven bredvid), from 1999, is about an odd love affair between an intellectual librarian and a simple farmer. In France, the book has sold 450,000 copies.

Susanna Alakoski was born in Finland but grew up in Skåne, southern Sweden. Her debut novel, Beyond (Svinalängorna), was made into both a film and a play, and has sold over half a million copies. It describes life in southern Sweden in the 1960s, in a culture where alcoholism was rife.

Carl-Johan Vallgren has won a number of awards for his books, which have been sold to 25 countries. Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercule Barefoot (Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia) is the novel that has achieved the greatest success internationally. Jonas Gardell has published 18 books, the most recent being Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar: 1. Kärleken. The first of a trilogy of books, it describes when AIDS came to Stockholm in the 1980s. Jonas Hassen Khemiri made his debut in 2003 with the book One Eye Red (Ett öga rött) about Halim, a teenager with Moroccan parents, growing up in Stockholm. Written in ‘immigrant patois’, it deals with such problems as ethnicity, roots and the importance of language for a person’s identity.

Last updated: 1 April 2014