Sven Delblanc (1931-92)

by Karin Petherick

Photo: Ltfi zkk

Delblanc´s autobiographical works Livets ax (The Sweetcorn of Life, 1991), and Agnar (Chaff, 1993), make harrowing and illuminating reading, covering the formative conditions and experiences in the period between infancy and his entry into adulthood. His childhood was traumatic due to a psychopathically violent father, and the child created for himself an all-powerful and merciless God cast in the image of father Delblanc, and he saw the world as peopled either by tormentors or victims. In many ways, this deeply pessimistic view haunted him throughout his life. Later, Manichean Gnosticism, with its dualistic world view and belief in a supreme God of light in a remote heaven, who has no dealings with and did not create our fallen world, and on the other hand the evil Demiurge, creator and ruler of our brutal and chaotic planet, provided Delblanc with a mythology around which to structure his imaginary universe. He did not ‘believe in’ Gnosticism theologically speaking – in the here-and-now he was a materialist and positivist, but artists need metaphors. His bleak view was only relieved by the knowledge that woman´s sustaining love, though unable to eradicate cruelty, nevertheless exists. A flowering cherry tree became its symbol. Another central element in Delblanc´s personal life was his experience of involuntary episodes of escape into ‘another order’, of blessed peace and moments of heightened awareness and timelessness. He calls this mystical state of being ‘avlägset land’(distant land).24  The episodes did not feel ‘religious’,  there was no vision of God, but they felt essentially more ‘real’ than the real world. Delblanc speaks of ‘namnlöshet’ (namelessness) in this land, of shedding the labels and attributes of everyday life in a state of perfect unity with all things. Lovers in his novels at best come together in this namelessness. The concept is not unlike Lars Ahlin´s ideology of human meetings shorn of all social and moral status on a bedrock of absolute equality.

It is impossible in a short presentation to mention all Delblanc´s novels, but his first one, the allegorical Eremitkräftan (The Hermit Crab, 1962), is symptomatically important, for it explores a conflict which he regards as central to human existence, that between Order and Freedom. A young man living under the iron rule of a totalitarian regime escapes to freedom (the White City) only to discover the horrors of a place where licence leads to total depravity. He returns whence he fled, crying out in anguish that there must be a third alternative, to which the prison governor replies: ‘The freedom you dream of is false... The ship without a crew is free of a navigator, but it is not free from the power of currents and winds. Free? Yes, free as a dog, a pig, a snake.But not free as a human being.’25 Delblanc finds many and varied ways of posing the question which occupied him, as it had Dostoyevsky before him: Does man’s nature demand imposed order?26

In Delblanc´s second novel, the picaresque Prästkappan (The Cassock, 1963) set in Prussia in 1784, we follow the amazing adventures of the penniless and embattled curate Hermann, who speaks of the land of eternal darkness, which he has read of and is tempted by, where comforting hopelessness rules. As in many of Delblanc´s novels with a ‘trial’ structure, Herman fails the test, but not without scenes of love and mysticism. He proves to be the son and heir of his erstwhile aristocratic patron, and once having entered into his new role, he becomes as cruel and despotic as his forbears.

In his third novel Delblanc attempted to formulate a  ‘positive alternative’ to the corruption of the hero in Prästkappan. Its title, Nattresa (Night Journey, 1967), alludes to L.-F. Céline’s shocking masterpiece Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) with its demonstration of anarchic nihilism in response to the slaughter of the First World War, the metaphor being that to go into the night is to shed one’s last illusion. The ‘trial’ in Nattresa is that faced by a young man intent on writing a radical pamphlet. He is pursued by two emissaries of the Demiurge, here the obscenely cruel Lord of Unadulterated Capitalism, name of Minski, straight out of Marquis de Sade´s novel Juliette, and indeed the Marquis himself is one of the emissaries, for who has spoken more eloquently of the longing for freedom than he, pursuing libertinism in absurdum? Minski, with headquarters in New York, offers the hero a retreat into a restful oasis of total detachment from the ‘many too many’ who hunger and suffer out there in the world. But this time the hero chooses to join the victims, and thereby vanquishes his tempters. Later, Delblanc had misgivings about Nattresa; he feared he had been false to his own aesthetic and had go too close to agitprop in the wave of political correctness and anti-Americanism then current in Sweden. He felt great respect for the pioneers of Social Democracy, but increasingly disliked fashionable Marxists and band-wagoners.

The reading public at large know and admire Sven Delblanc for his tetralogy chronicling in alternately tragic, burlesque and realistic mode the life and times of Hedeby (in reality Vagnhärad in Sörmland) just before, during and after the Second World War. This is his childhood territory in fictionalized form, consisting of Åminne (Memories, 1970), Stenfågel (The Stone Bird, 1973), Vinteride (Winter Lair, 1974), and Stadsporten (The town gate, 1975). The ‘Hedeby cycle’ was transformed into successful TV entertainment by the simple expedient of focusing on the comic and slapstick episodes, for Delblanc can be riotously amusing. His second tetralogy Samuels bok (Samuel´s Book, 1981), Samuels döttrar, (Samuel´s Daughters, 1982), Kanaans land (Land of Canaan, 1984) and Maria ensam (Maria Alone, 1985), also widely admired, recreates fictionally the remorseless fate which dogged Delblanc´s maternal grandfather (a preacher who becomes mentally ill) and his family. Both chronicles present a world of social inequalities and inexorable pressures, before the advent of the Swedish welfare state after the second world war.

The dreams and visions of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), scientist-turned-mystic, have inspired many writers, including Blake, Balzac, Emerson, Strindberg and Delblanc. His spirit hovers over at least two of the latter´s novels. Firstly, Grottmannen (The Caveman, 1977), which describes a passionate relationship in which the protagonist strains to achieve a state of paradisal, mystical unity with his beloved (say, like the hermaphrodite state described by Plato in Timaeus), and who also dreams about his struggles in a corrupt media world (much as Swedenborg dreamt allegorically about his own concerns in his Dreambook). Secondly, Gunnar Emmanuel (1978), the story of an innocent idealist studying in Uppsala, disillusioned by the cynicism of his peers and lecturers.  His girl-friend Vera (a good Swedenborgian allegory for Truth or Art ) disappears. Gunnar Emmanuel visits Nationalmuseum and a magic potion enables him to enter into a number of paintings from various epochs in his desperate search for her. But Vera has gone for good, and shortly, so has our young Candide, who often voiced a longing that ‘the pendulum of time might cease’, and he escape into eternity.27 With nice irony, only his teacher ‘Sven Delblanc’ is left behind, who in his self-centred middle age has failed to recognize this portrait of himself as a young man.

Delblanc cared greatly about his ‘idéromaner’ (novels of ideas) and spoke of the following as a trilogy. Kastrater (The Castrati, 1975) concerns the role of the artist. Rome of 1783 is conjured up with the Young Pretender Charles Edward and King Gustaf III surrounded by aristocratic debauchees and libertines, all indifferent to the sufferings and humiliations of the lower orders (to which artists also belong). The immortal castrato Farinelli and his young colleague Marchesi sing for the grandees like angels, but Farinelli has no illusions that art has ever fed the hungry or provides warmth for the freezing: ‘What has our art to do with reality and truth? Beware of harbouring pretentions which merely confer on art a responsibility it cannot shoulder... Artificiality and playfulness are what we should strive for, for when our masters wish to confer on us the more exalted roles of citizens and social reformers, they only do it to cover up their own vile crimes, so that we shall gild their vices and glorify their base villanies... Seek artificiality, Marchesi, be the monkey of power — whatever happens do not become its accomplice and executioner's assistant ... be a nightingale, be a monkey, and you will exercise the only virtue we can hope for — that of being victims instead of hangmen’
(98 f.). Naturally, this is directed against those regimes where the artist/writer is forced to follow the party line and viciously punished for disobedience, but Delblanc also detested the milder but irksome left-wing orthodoxy of the Swedish literary and political establishment in the 1960s and 1970s, with its preferred social realism and its collectivist claim to be sole the arbiter of values.28

Freedom versus order, already familiar to us from Eremitkräftan; is also the theme of Speranza (1980), significantly subtitled en samtida berättelse (a contemporary tale). It is the diary of a young aristocrat who fails abjectly when his ideals are put to the test. In 1794, attended by tutor and manservant upon the good ship Speranza, he discovers that the hold is full of slaves being transported in unspeakable conditions to toil in a Jesuit rum distillery in Porto Rico. His protests to those in command are ineffectual; a Catholic Abbé on board proclaims that the end justifies the means, that these black heathen souls are being saved for heaven from a life of animality, possibly cannibalism. What is earthly suffering compared to eternal bliss? The Abbé rails against the French revolutionaries: ‘You want to depose God in order to grant mankind liberty, liberty to wallow in vices and crimes . . . you speak of welfare, of society as a home for the people, but the populace will feel only despair, rootlessness and an insane desire to seek intoxation and death, rather than to live without God, without myths, without obedience and without hope’. (84)

Like Kastrater, Jerusalems natt (Jerusalems Night, 1983) is essentially dialogic, since Delblanc’s predilection for stylized drama was at odds with Sweden’s prevailing social-realist theatrical mode, so that what he conceived as plays, he felt impelled to transform into short novels.29 Jerusalems natt shows how an originally sublime ideal — in this case Christianity — becomes rigid and inhuman when Order is imposed on it (the exclusion women, the setting up of hierarchies). It features a meeting c. 70 AD between Titus, Roman Governer of Palestine, the slavish Jewish defector and historian Josephus, Filemon (a sceptical Greek, the novel’s narrator) and Eleasar, an elderly Jew who is arrested when trying to escape from beleaguered Jerusalem. Eleasar, one of Jesus’ disciples, is now morally disillusioned by the way women, with whom he had stood next to the Cross, have lost all influence in the congregation, ‘everthing became order and obedience, while faith and love increasingly faded away’ (102), whereas Jesus had seen in these faithful sisters a cornerstone of his teaching. Eleasar quotes from an apocryphical Gnostic gospel: ‘When you transform that which is two into a whole . . . then you shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’30

Sven Delblanc. Picture probably from 1960's. Unknown photographer.The action of Moria land (Mount Moriah, 1987) is played out early in the twenty-first century in a Sweden which has been incorporated into a mighty neighbouring totalitarian state, a chilling but conceivable scenario before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The diarist-protagonist is an old man who several years past betrayed his son to the secret police, and Delblanc’s text shows us the pathological workings of a mind demented by guilt feelings. Counterpointed with the old man’s shabby evasions and repressions of the truth, the text offers unattributed chunks from Kierkegaard’s Frygt og Bæven (Fear and Trembling), in which Kierkegaard envisages Abraham’s and Isaac’s journey to the land of Moriah (as told in Genesis, chapter 22), where Abraham is called upon by God to sacrifice his son. In Kierkegaard’s terms defeat is miraculously transformed into victory ‘by the power of the absurd’, for Abraham complies in the absurd belief that somehow God will save them, and pending that salvation, Abraham lets his son think that it is his father who wills his death, for he will not deprive Isaac of his belief in God’s mercy. How different the situation of the old man, who is aware that his son not only knew he had been betrayed by his father, he had no God to turn to in his agony. The hideous truth the old man ultimately cannot suppress is that he sacrificed his son to save his own skin, and that in his materialistic universe ‘THERE IS NO FORGIVENESS’. Where would it come from? His victim is dead. The rational side of him cannot deal with the situation, and since he lacks an ‘irrational’ religious side, the only thing left is for him to intoxicate himself with a blind, destructive, Schoperhauerian Will to Power, overruling morality and self-knowledge and to live by violence and vampirism. The old man used, when young, to admire Hobbes’s Leviathan, the absolutism of which is a forerunner to the totalitarian Swedish state, in theory a sort of realized Utopia. In practice, the Sweden in question has grown into a tyranny, and the old man has come to hate it. It is hard now to recollect the warning signs of incipient corporativism, legislation by decree, and intolerance towards dissidents which were faintly discernible in the years leading up to the end of the era of state expansion and state capitalism. Because the novel’s envisaged state of the twenty-first century claims to be founded on the highest ideals, it brooks no criticism, and it offers no future since its aims have already been fulfilled. There is nothing for artists and thinkers to do any longer, since paradise on earth has already been achieved. Delblance is savagely satirical in his treatment of fellow-travellers and opportunists, and he is no less ruthless in the narrator’s self-exposure.In narrative terms the book is intricately devised and reads like a thriller, requiring a good deal of hermeneutic skill on the reader’s part. Moria land drew critical flak because it was regarded as overtly political and inopportune just a year after the murder of Olof Palme, whereas in fact its central issue is essentially existential.

The final line of Moria land is identical to that of Änkan (The widow, 1988), with both narrators proclaiming ´I shall live a long time yet´. Hideous lust for life and disregard of morality is what fuels them. Otherwise the novels are unalike, for Änkan subverts the Shirley Conran Lace genre (assertive women, money and sex).31 It is a 55-year-old widow´s account of her unexpected release from the tutelage of her rich, Nobel-laureate husband. She laments that freedom has come too late, but a youth-drug transforms her gloriously, and she then relentlessly avenges every patriarchal injustice, and exults in the ´male´ prerogatives of wealth, power and sexual dominance, leaving behind her a trail of murder, suicides, incest and infanticide. The scene of the shocking thriller-like action is Stockholm and Uppsala, and Delblanc inimitably conjures up the manners, clothes and speech of the jet-set. But underneath the glittering surface, the widow of the novel is not only a woman released from her husband´s shadow and unable to cope with  the consequences, she allegorically represents all of us in a world where God is dead and no holds are barred. Some critics were deluded enough to equate Änkan with pulp fiction, a ludicrous idea and one which deeply wounded its author. Delblanc admired Hjalmar Bergman´s aesthetic, to which he also adhered; their mode is implicit as opposed to explicit; shunning explanation of their intentions, they choose instead to let their fictions embody (gestalta) them, which means of course that they, with their complex vision, in a sense are ‘difficult’ writers, laying themselves open to misunderstanding.32

Ifigenia (1990) is based on the harrowing tale of how King Agamemnon feels impelled to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis for the sake of wind for his fleet which is setting out to reclaim his brother’s wife Helen from Troy. In Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Aulis, Iphigenia has been miraculously saved by the substitution of a sacrificial hind and transported thence to a place of  safety, but the suspicion is voiced already in the play by her mother that this is a poetic fiction to mask hideous reality. The novel´s concern is thus both the appalling betrayal of an innocent for the sake of a supposed greater good (the necessity to punish the Trojans), and above all the way poets, for the greater good of their audiences, transform chaos and cruelty into the workings of a benevolent providence ruled over by gods. (The novel’s premise is that Iphigenia was slaughtered.) The book’s second half focusses on the role in this particular story of one Demodokos (here the author of ‘Homer’s’ works and commanded to accompany the expedition to Troy in order to immortalize its exploits). As participant in the action and partly its narrator, he agonizes over his own frailties and the euphemisms and distortions of the truth which his patron demands of him. Delblanc’s Ifigenia demytholgizes an ancient story. Stylized and elliptical narration creates a Verfremdung, or distancing effect, which requires readers to grapple with the central issues of 1) a tormented Agamemnon who submits to the belief that ‘all human and divine order demands sacrifice’, and 2) asking if it is poetry´s function, by means of the idealized presentation of events, to help humanity take heart in a world subject to cruelty and violence. Delblanc, like Dagerman, believed in unflinchingly facing the night.



24. For fuller treatment of these mystical episodes, see K. Petherick, ‘The Farewell of a  Secular Mystic: Sven Delblanc’s Livets ax and Slutord’, in Scandinavica XXXI (1992), pp. 73-82.
25. Eremitkräftan, ‘En bok för alla’, 1980, p 182. Except in the case of Eremitkräftan quotations from Delblanc´s works are followed by a bracketed page number referring to the First Edition.
26. In Dostoyevsky´s Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov (chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor’), the central question is of man’s nature and the limits of freedom.
27. In his ‘Sermon on Fire’, Buddha speaks of the fire of desire which burns in all mankind’s senses, bringing in its train suffering and evil; he speaks, too, of the freedom to be attained by learning to abhor the products of the senses, at which point the endless cycle of rebirth is at an end and the liberated one is no longer of this world.In a letter to me (7 September 1990) Delblanc speaks of a Buddhist longing in his novel Gunnar Emmanuel for liberation from sentient existence, linking this with his own personal experiences of mysticism.
28. Other writers, e.g. P.C. Jersild, Per Gunnar Evander and Göran Tunström also felt unease at the prescriptive literary climate of the time.
29. Kastrater was successfully dramatized and had its première at Dramaten 26 March 1977.
30. Delblanc had studied apocryphical New Testament gospels as well as Elaine Pagel´s book The Gnostic Gospels (1979, Penguin Books, 1990) about the Dead Sea scrolls. Note that Gnostic mythology about the Demiurge is used by Delblanc to speak of the suffering of the world under a cruel creator, but that the Gnostic Gospels are altogether different in their presentation of love.
31. Shirley Conran, Lace (1982, Penguin Books, 1983); the genre is colloquially known as tantsnusk’ in Sweden.
32. For Delblanc´s reaction to the critical reception of Änkan and for his admiration for Hjalmar Bergman, see K Petherick, ‘Diktverket enbart ska tala! Kring några brev från Sven Delblanc’, Artes, 1993 no.4, pp. 90 and 95.

The above article, copyright Karin Petherick, is taken from Aspects of Modern Swedish Literature, edited by Irene Scobbie. Norvik Press, Norwich 1999.
The above notes (24-32), follow the complete list of notes in that book.