Bodil Malmsten was one of the major Swedish authors of the 1900s, beloved of both a sizable readership and the reviewers. She wrote poems, novels, short stories, plays, and causerie-style articles, all of which were characterised by her particular, rhythmic literary language, typified by word inversions, use of intertextuality, and constant playing with word meanings.
Bodil Malmsten was born on 19 August 1944 in the village of Bjärme in Jämtland. Her father, Ulf Malmsten, was an agronomist who was the son of the well-known furniture designer Carl Malmsten. Her mother was a farmer’s daughter from Bjärme. Bodil Malmsten’s parents divorced when she was a little girl and she and her sister Åsa initially went to live with her mother in Ol’Ersgården in Bjärme. After a while, however, her mother was forced to move to Hälsingland where she worked as a house-keeper. Bodil Malmsten spent that period living with her maternal grandparents.
A while later Bodil Malmsten lived with a foster family in Vällingby. During the 1960s and 1970s she lived with Peter Csihas, an illustrator. The couple had a daughter together, Stefania Malmsten, who later became a graphic designer. Having spent several decades living in Stockholm Bodil Malmsten moved to France in 1999 to live in the district called Finistère on the French Atlantic coast. Finistère and its surrounds are well-described in her later work, particularly in her more autobiographical works entitled Priset på vatten i Finistère and Sista boken från Finistère. Bodil Malmsten moved back to Sweden in 2010.
Bodil Malmsten’s writings can be divided into three fundamental types of literature: poetry, prose, and drama. However, it must also be stated at the outset that her lyricism contains clear narrative elements, and her prose and drama similarly contain poetic elements. It is literary use of language with its particular rhythm, its abrupt changes between high- and low-register, and the constant examining of the potential meanings of words which are the most remarkable aspects of Malmsten’s work rather than one specific genre.
Bodil Malmsten made her literary debut in 1970 with a children’s book called Ludvig åker, co-authored by Peter Csihas with whom she was living at the time. She began her long journey as an author of books for adults seven years later, starting with a 1977 poetry collection called Dvärgen Gustav. The poems revolve around a dwarf called Gustav who runs a small circus. As Ingemar Haag implies in his essay entitled “Jag ska skriva. Jag ska. Jag ska”, in Litteratur och språk, Gustav the dwarf also represents a kind of censoring super-ego who wants to curtail the poet’s desperate need to write. The collection’s form is characterised by a combination of poems with short stanzas, generating a kind of staccato rhythm as they are read, as well as longer narrative poems which later became somewhat of a trademark for Bodil Malmsten. One particularly negative critic finished their review with the sentence: “Forget Gustav the dwarf, he never existed”. These dire words have often been held up as the reason why it took Bodil Malmsten seven years to publish her next poetry collection, called Damen, det brinner!.
Damen, det brinner! is usually considered to be Bodil Malmsten’s breakthrough work. Both it and her ensuing poetry collections largely make use of the same themes of isolated and lonely people’s longing for love and company. The poems are typified by sudden seesawing between deep seriousness and dark humour. Nåd och onåd, idioternas bok, from 1989, takes the form of a play about mankind’s unhappiness with the culture of consumption. Nefertiti i Berlin, from 1990, deals with the sensitive relationship between a mother and her almost grown-up daughter based on the myth of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Perhaps the clearest connection to one of Bodil Malmsten’s greatest inspiration sources appears in Inte med den eld jag har nu: dikt för en annan dam, from 1993, namely Samuel Beckett. Beckett resonates through practically all of Bodil Malmsten’s writings and his presence is announced in the very title of Inte med den eld jag har nu, which is a direct quotation from his one-act play Krapp’s last tape (Krapps sista band in Swedish), and it recurs several times in the collection.
Bodil Malmsten made her novel-writing debut in 1994 with the long and poetically titled novel Den dagen kastanjerna slår ut är jag långt härifrån. The story focuses on the acclaimed acting divo Maurice Lind’s decadent life. The narrative viewpoint is spread across a number of characters albeit Maurice himself dominates in the main. He recounts, through a number of flashbacks, his acting career and his happy family life which he successively destroys through his abuse of alcohol and sex. Lennart Bromander, a reviewer for Aftonbladet, enthusiastically exclaims in response to the novel: “One can only wonder why Bodil Malmsten waited this long to write a novel given how clear it is now that she is enormously talented in this area!”. The novel was nominated for the August prize.
As noted by Ulrika Milles, Bodil Malmsten is often interested in “the washed-up”, in what happens to famous people when the spotlight is finally and permanently switched off, as Milles put it: “when the icons have lost their shine”. The retiring actor was the focus of Den dagen kastanjerna slår ut är jag långt härifrån. In the following novel, Nästa som rör mig, from 1996, it is a fashion model. The novel tells the story of Johanna, a young former model, who finds herself in the capital of the fashion world – Paris – fleeing both a crime she has committed and the memories of her traumatic past. The novel elegantly presents the themes of appearance and invisibility, as well as the existential chasm lying beneath both the appearance-fixated contemporary culture and a lonely person who is in crisis. The narrative style resembles that of her first novel, apart from being limited to one character – that of Johanna – and the development of a narrower and more concise storyline. Linguistically speaking both novels are reminiscent of Bodil Malmsten’s poetry: the story is told in short, rhythmic sentences which often culminate in a linguistic metaperspective in which the narrator reflects on and deconstructs the conventional definition of a word.
Bodil Malmsten continued to portray the desires and impulses of modern, and often isolated, big-city inhabitants in her 1998 short-story collection Undergångarens sånger. The title hints at a literary borrowing from another one of her great sources of inspiration, the German author Thomas Bernhard and his 1983 novel called Der untergeher (Undergångaren in Swedish). The short-story characters share the common feature that beneath their socially well-adapted exteriors they all are at the mercy of their emotions, which range from existential anxiety to a longing for a great passion to the need to suddenly take an unexpected impulsive step into the unknown.
Bodil Malmsten had already made her debut as a playwright in 1990. That year her play Nåd och onåd opened at Teater Plaza in Stockholm. Three years later Den underbara bysten was produced at Stockholms stadsteater (city theatre), directed by Kerstin Österlin. As these two titles imply the plays are based partly on Bodil Malmsten’s poetry collections named Nåd och onåd, idioternas bok and Nefertiti i Berlin. In 1996 Uppsala stadsteater (city theatre) put on a production of Tid och otid, a play which is centred on celebrity and its drawbacks like the novel Nästa som rör mig. A group of people are waiting to make their appearance on a TV-programme, a talkshow, for which they have been selected as representatives of different types of lifestyles. The whole play takes place in the stressful atmosphere backstage. Each participant is seeking affirmation by appearing on TV and thereby is missing out on the real, inter-human exchanges which they could have experienced if they had focused on each other instead.
In 1999 Bodil Malmsten moved to France and this move can be seen to have taken her writing to a new level. This was primarily visible through the fact that she began to write more autobiographically and that, to a greater extent than before, she represented herself as one of her day’s sharpest critics of the Swedish welfare society. Her 2001 autobiographical novel Priset på vatten i Finistère portrays how a middle-aged woman abandons her familiar life in Sweden, and the reasons behind it; no longer feeling at home in her native land. In depicting her happy life in her adopted French home Bodil Malmsten subtly echoes one of France’s most famous philosophers, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and his well-known motto of “cultivating one’s garden”. Large sections of the autobiography are thus dedicated to the author’s newly-awoken interest in gardening. However, Bodil Malmsten would not have been Bodil Malmsten if she had not introduced a snake into paradise. In this case the snake is the character of Madame C who suggests that the narrator should write a book about her new life. In this way a metaperspective is introduced into the story and through it the problem of writer’s block is woven which Bodil Malmsten frequently repeats in her poetry, novels, interviews, and causerie-style articles.
Bodil Malmsten spends a large part of Priset på vatten i Finistère harshly criticising how Social Democracy developed in Sweden during the late 1900s and the early 2000s. A similar criticism is notable in the even more autobiographical work from 2004 entitled Mitt först liv. Den gudarna älskar dör inte. This book recounts Bodil Malmsten’s childhood in Jämtland during the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to serving as a love-letter to her maternal grandparents and the food and nature of Norrland, the story also provides a self-critical settlement with her own generations’ egoism and materialism, which along with the degenerate Social Democracy has to take the blame for the failure of the Swedish welfare state.
She continues this socio-critical line in her 2005 short-story collection called För att lämna röstmeddelande, tryck stjärna which was also adapted for the stage that same year. Similar to the previous short-story collection, Undergångarens sånger, it portrays the life-stories of some Swedish people mainly living in major cities. Whereas the previous collection was characterised by psychological realism, this second one is just as much typified by the social dilemma generated by the dismantling of the welfare state: Bert-Ove, on long-term sick-leave, and his many years struggle with the benefits office, and the frustrated Giselle’s fight with health-care.
Bodil Malmsten released the sequel to Priset på vatten i Finistère in 2008, entitled Sista boken från Finistère. The title was to be taken literally; the narrator is forced by unclear circumstances to leave Finistère and to move into an apartment in a town near Nantes. This is a dirge about the loss of paradise and is likened to the fate of the Biblical Job. The constant, brutal presence of the drastically comical element can also be found here in the recurrence of Madame C and a project to write an erotic book.
During her time in Finistère Bodil Malmsten also managed to set up a publishing company, to write a blog, and to establish an entirely new genre which she called ‘loggbok’ (log book). Her first ‘log book’, Hör bara hur ditt hjärta bultar i mig was published in 2006. As with the ensuing four log books it consists of a mix of her own material and quotations and extracts from other writers’ work. Her own contributions often comprise short contemporary observations and just as in her previous writings she juxtaposes the highbrow with the lowbrow, refined culture with popular culture.
In addition to poetry collections, short stories, and novels, as well as the log books, Bodil Malmsten also wrote a large number of columns and causerie-style articles for various newspapers and journals, whilst also publishing a number of causerie collections, including Det är ingen ordning på mina papper, from 1991, and Det är fortfarande ingen ordning på mina papper, from 2003. Further, she did translations and directed radio-theatre. She received many and various literary prizes throughout the years.
Towards the end of her writing career Bodil Malmsten returned to poetry. Her 2015 poetry collection called Det här är hjärtat comprises one single long poem which deals with death, sorrow, and love. The poem’s narrator is mourning the loss of a loved one all the while an illness is encroaching in the form of heart failure which requires treatment. The gravity and the existential themes are strengthened by the knowledge that Bodil Malmsten was herself seriously ill with cancer when the collection was published. She died a little over a year later, on 5 February 2016.