Ella Hillbäck is a distinctive author of modern Swedish literature. Her voluminous literary output comprises twelve collections of poems, five novels and two collections of lyrical prose, all of which are unique in tone.
Ella Hillbäck was born in 1914 in Örgryte outside Gothenburg. Her parents worked in the textile industry. Ella Hillbäck had three younger siblings, two sisters and a brother. Having gained her lower school certificate she set out to be a writer and a literary critic. In 1949 she married the author – and later member of the Swedish Academy – Östen Sjöstrand. Their marriage lasted 25 years, until 1974. They didn’t have any children. Ella Hillbäck became increasingly isolated after her divorce from Östen Sjöstrand but still had friends who cared for her and tried to make life easier for her in various ways. Gerhard Bungerfeldt, a social worker who regularly visited her during her final years, had a significant impact on her life. He was a devoted admirer of her poetry and also a good friend and dialogue partner, while also helping her with practical matters such as cleaning and shopping.
Ella Hillbäck made her debut in 1939 with Hos en poet i kjol, a tender, sincere and mesmerising declaration of love to love, youth and spring, although even here a darker tone is emergent: “Life which arrives cradled/in the dispersed shroud of spring/ is accompanied by caskets” (from “Men träden har sin visa”). Several of the poems in Hos en poet i kjol are rhymed, just as in the poetry collection entitled En gång i maj, 1941. A recurring motif in her writings is the idea of animated nature, a kind of nature mysticism which runs through all of Ella Hillbäck’s output and is perhaps its most important element.
Ella Hillbäck’s first novel, Albatross, from 1943, is a coming-of-age story which closely resembles her own childhood, at least superficially. The central character is a young girl whose father works in a textile factory and is an active union man. The war is represented in the novel by the character of Keller, a German refugee and close friend of the father. He is both frightening and fascinating to the young girl who hears him scream and cry in his sleep as he is plagued by nightmares from his past.
From 1947 onwards, as seen in the poetry collection entitled Världsbild, a darker tone and slower tempo emerges in her writing, although the feeling of wonder and trust in the world and nature – so strong in the two previous collections of poems – is not completely lost, not even in her last posthumously published poems, Dikter i mitt ljus, 1980. This collection focuses mainly on death and extinction. Ella Hillbräck’s Christian faith – she converted and lived as a Catholic for some time – is most clearly expressed in the poetry collection called Vägar, rastställen from 1960. This collection made her known to a wider readership.
The marriage to Östen Sjöstrand left its mark in both the poems and the novels. The novel Det tvåfaldiga livet, 1964, centres on a marriage between artists in which the woman feels pushed aside and overshadowed by her more famous husband. It cannot be ascertained just how autobiographical the novel is but Ella Hillbäck did often end up being overshadowed by her husband. Several works of literary history only mention her as Östen Sjöstrand’s wife.
Ella Hillbäck does not belong to one particular literary decade. She was not typical of the 1940s during the 1940s, nor was she typical of the 1970s during the 1970s. However, the somewhat retrospective aestheticism and almost religious questing of the 1950s can be said to be in harmony with the tone and themes of her poetry, barring a few exceptions. The collection of poems entitled En mörk blå redovisning, 1969, is evidently more political than the rest. In an interview with Matts Rying in 1971 Ella Hillbäck said:
“I don’t believe that any serious contemporary author can avoid being impacted by social issues or global problems, overpopulation, impoverishment, environmental poisoning, the violent events occurring around us. I believe that these events have to enter an author’s work in some way, that they reveal themselves on different levels, or that influences are derived from these very issues. But I don’t see this as an external demand! This is not something that political debaters can hold over me like a whip, it is rather something which is already there and which demands to be expressed. I do this through the euphemistic use of imagery and characters in poetry. I know that others tend to treat these matters in plain text.”
The collection of writings called 12 blickar på verkligheten, 1972, portrays and thematises this vision. We are shown a boy’s room, we look out over an icy landscape, we go to the cinema and watch an action film, we travel on a bus in southern Europe and view the passing scenery. Woven into these scenes are both personal associations and reflections on the circumstances of fellow humans. Different times and places are interchanged and merged in these accounts and together create a feeling of proximity to the author in a way that ordinary fictional prose and poetry doesn’t always manage.
Some of the later writings, such as the poems “Min käre Swedenborg” and “Gåtan Swedenborg” from the collection called Ljusets vägar, 1976, focus on Emanuel Swedenborg and his world view. The oddest and most unusual collection is – without doubt – the lyrical prose collection entitled Swedenborgvisioner, 1973. It is presented as “En prosasvit i sju avsnitt” (“a series of prose in seven instalments”) and is a sort of erotically-tinged book of revelation, which hints that the author has depicted herself, in a suggestive and visionary way, in the role of Swedenborg’s goddaughter.
In addition to her literary writings Ella Hillbäck was also active as a journalist and a literary critic, including work for Ny Tid and Morgontidningen.
Ella Hillbäck died in Stockholm in 1979.