Swedish poet wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer has won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The 2011 Nobel Prize in literature was awarded Thursday to Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet whose surrealistic works about the mysteries of the human mind won him acclaim as one of the most important Scandinavian writers since World War II.

The Swedish Academy said it recognized the 80-year-old poet — long considered a favorite for the award — "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."

Tomas Tranströmer's works have been translated into more than 50 languages. ((Ulla Montan/Albert Bonniers Forlag/Nobel Prize))

In 1990, Transtromer suffered a stroke, which left him half-paralyzed and unable to speak, but he continued to write and published a collection of poems — The Great Enigma — in Swedish in 2004 and in English two years later.

"Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams. Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveler sinks toward the green zone of morning," the prelude reads.

"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. But aboveground there's greenery — a tropical flood of it — with lifted arms, listening to the beat of an invisible pump."

"He is overjoyed," Anna Tillgren, spokeswoman for Transtromer's publisher Bonniers, told reporters at his apartment Thursday. She said Transtromer had managed to utter two words after learning about the Nobel: "very good."

Transtromer has been a perennial favorite for the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award, and in recent years Swedish journalists have waited outside his apartment in Stockholm on the day the literature prize was announced. Transtromer's most famous works include the 1966 Windows and Stones, in which he depicts themes from his many travels and Baltics from 1974.

His works have been translated into more than 50 languages and influenced poets around the globe, particularly in North America. 

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

In 2007, the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry gave the Swedish poet a lifetime recognition award. The Canadian organization said Transtromer's work was "rife with juxtapositions of contrary and primal forces firmly rooted in the natural world, falling somewhere between dream and nightmare."

Debuted to acclaim in Sweden

Transtromer's poems had been published in several journals when in 1954 he made his debut with 17 poems to much acclaim in Sweden. His love for nature and music guided his writing. Gradually, Transtromer's poems became darker, probing existential questions of life, death and disease. 

"He's writing about big questions. He's writing about death, he's writing about history and memory, and nature," Englund said.

Selected Tomas Transtromer works translated from Swedish to English:
  • Twenty Poems (1970)
  • Night Vision (1972)
  • Windows & Stones (1972)
  • Elegy; Some October (1973)
  • Citoyens (1974)
  • Baltics (1975)
  • How the Late Autumn Night Novel Begins (1980)
  • Truth Barriers: Poems (1980)
  • Selected Poems (1981)
  • The Wild Marketplace (1985)
  • The Blue House (equals) Det bla huset (1987)
  • For the Living and the Dead (1994)
  • The Deleted World (2006)
  • The Great Enigma (2006)
  • The Sorrow Gondola (equals) Sorgegondolen (2010)

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

"And so I think we've been quite thoughtful and haven't been rash," Englund said Thursday.

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

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 Tillgren, spokeswoman for the publisher. "We are overwhelmed. This is the happiest day ever for many of us working at the publishing house."

Raised by teacher mother

Born in Stockholm in 1931, Transtromer grew up alone with his teacher mother after she divorced his father — a journalist. He started writing poetry while studying at the Sodra Latin school in Stockholm and debuted with 17 Poems at age 23.

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.

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.

Recent winners of the Nobel Prize in literature
  • 2011: Tomas Transtromer, Sweden.
  • 2010: Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru.
  • 2009: Herta Mueller, Germany.
  • 2008: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, France.
  • 2007: Doris Lessing, Britain.
  • 2006: Orhan Pamuk, Turkey.
  • 2005: Harold Pinter, Britain.
  • 2004: Elfriede Jelinek, Austria.
  • 2003: J.M. Coetzee, South Africa.
  • 2002: Imre Kertesz, Hungary.
  • 2001: V.S. Naipaul, Trinidad/Britain.

"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.

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.