Karin Boye was a groundbreaking lyricist and writer of modernist prose. She sought a new form of norm-breaking equality between the sexes both in her lifestyle and in her writings. She was also involved in the interwar period's re-evaluation of fundamental cultural values.
Karin Boye was born in Gothenburg on 26 October in 1900. Her family was part of the well-off bourgeois element of society. Her father, Fritz Boye, was a civil engineer. Both he and his wife, Signe Boye, were actively involved in liberal and pacifist efforts. Karin Boye had two younger brothers named Sven and Ulf. She learned to read and write at an early age and fell in love with the world of fairy-tales, unsurprising given her rich imagination. Following two years’ attendance at the Mathilda Hall girls’ school in Gothenburg she and her family moved to Stockholm in 1909. There she attended the Åhlinska school. In 1915 the Boye family settled in a house called Björkebo in Huddinge.
Whilst at high school Karin Boye joined Kristliga gymnasistföreningen (the Christian high school students’ society). While attending a summer camp at Fogelstad manor she met Anita Nathorst, who was one of the camp leaders. Nathorst made a deep impact on Karin Boye and they formed a close friendship.
Karin Boye gained her school-leaving certificate from the Åhlinska school in 1920. She then began to attend Södra seminariet (teacher-training programme) in Stockholm in order to become a public-school teacher. She had no interest in becoming a special subject teacher. Her ambition, in contrast, was to use her role as teacher to exercise influence over children’s education in ethics. However, the personal crisis she experienced whilst training to become a teacher had in the meantime led her to move away from her earlier Christian beliefs and away from the heterosexual concept of love which was the only legally recognised form of love at that time. She matriculated at Uppsala university where she read Greek, Nordic languages, and literature. She was actively involved in student life and earned respect for her two poetry collections Moln, from 1922, and Gömda land, from 1924. She was elected chair of Kvinnliga studentföreningen (the female students’ society) and in 1925 she joined the Uppsala division of Svenska Clartéförbundet (the Swedish Clarté league) where she made a lot of new friends. In 1926 she transferred to Stockholms högskola (college) to read history. She continued her affiliation with Clarté, serving on the editorial board for the league’s organ from 1927 onwards. That same year she also published another poetry collection, entitled Härdarna. Once she had gained her Master of Arts in 1928 she then accepted various temporary teaching posts whilst continuing her involvement within Clarté, working as a translator, and producing her own writings.
The influence Nietzche had on Karin Boye’s early work is clearly evident in her debut collection, Moln. Karin Boye uses her free creative imagery inspired by nature to describe the miracles which have enabled the narrator to be a part of the struggle enveloping the concept of humanity and morality. Transgender sexuality is yet but a peripheral theme of her writings. It is primarily expressed by using the image of a snail which has encircled itself around its secret.
Two years later Karin Boye published Gömda land in which she redefines previously culturally subdued powers of chaos and turns them into fertile forces in the service of renewal. At the same time, Karin Boye abandons Nietzsche’s extreme individualism. This dismissal is portrayed in her poems “Till en vän”, “Sånger om ödet”, and “Sköldmön”. Karin Boye continued to search for a place within language which would not imprison her within a fixed power hierarchy but within which she could be viewed as a freely creative female subject. She put both the male-defined concept of ‘god’ and the term ‘woman’ up for grabs.
In Karin Boye’s third poetry collection, entitled Härdarna and published in 1927, the central symbolic image is fire. In the lengthy introductory poetry cycle the narrator celebrates her beloved with a lyrical force which is reminiscent of the biblical Song of Solomon. She piles image on top of image and endlessly creates new similes for her burning attraction. Freud’s writings had clarified for many that confronting the idealistic concept of humanity was an “acid test” that all people had to go through. The thought of neither being dominant over nature nor over one’s own domain scared most people. In contrast, Karin Boye created new images of a narrator who threw off their fear- and shame-woven armour and was now ready to meet “life’s powers unarmed”. At the same time, in the poem “Lilith”, she provides a shocking image of her own vulnerable position. When the creative process takes her deep into her own personal depths she is comforted by Lilith, who represents all who are condemned, and by eternal rest.
When the Clarté circle no longer saw any political value in psychoanalysis but sought to refine their political and financial focus Karin Boye continued the circle’s former attempts at merging Marxist social analysis with psychoanalysis and tried to turn it into a form of liberation ideology. Her 1931 novel Astarte portrays her blistering criticism of a society in which God has been replaced by Mammon in norm-defying poetic prose. This is a society in which the Semitic fertility goddess of Astarte, who once ruled over both heaven and earth, has now become a mere mannequin. The emancipation of women, separated from its connection with life, is exploited according to the changing winds of fashion in a market where dreams are for sale. Although Astarte won a Nordic novel competition the leading literary critics remained completely unmoved by both its innovative use of language as well as its critique of contemporary bourgeois culture.
In 1929 Karin Boye married her Clarté colleague Leif Björk. During the early 1930s she lived in a Stockholm collective which entailed a constant flow of work, conversations, and parties. This open lifestyle meant that anti-individual communities were tested at every level. At the same time a new cultural publication was being considered in which literature and cultural issues would be treated more seriously than they were in the daily press. Karin Boye placed great weight on this publication remaining free of the commercial and totalitarian forces of the day.
In 1931 the first edition of Spektrum was released. Karin Boye served on the editorial board along with Josef Riwkin and Erik Mesterton. She translated an article on psychoanalysis from a German scientific journal and wrote an essay entitled “Dagdrömmeriet som livsåskådning”. Here she described the necessary break with a platonic-Christian dual world concept and encouraged readers to instead dare to become involved in contemporary re-evaluations of values and ideals. She situated the investigation into human nature at the centre. She also pleaded for literature which could help modern humanity to live. She wrote in her essay entitled “Språket bortom logiken” that language does not reflect reality and that there was no alternative to reading. The written symbols no longer had a fixed definition following the loss of absolute values. Older definitions had been discarded and replaced by new ones. The readers were taking on a new and active role as interpreters. Karin Boye replaced the authoritarian judge of taste with “the ordinary reader” who was able to relate what they had read to their own lives and ways of thinking. She positioned her existential philosophical principle – that creation continues within every living thing – against the culturally conservative forces of the time.
Following a bout of deep depression Karin Boye left Stockholm and headed to Berlin in 1931. There she underwent psychoanalysis and – according to her own accounts – she definitely decided to adopt the position of “the condemned”. She changed her style, lost weight, dyed her hair black, began to wear makeup, and sometimes wore men’s apparel. She engaged in the open lifestyle which was developing at the gay clubs, suppressed by the Nazis who viewed them as expressions of a depraved and “Jewish” lifestyle. As Karin Boye had resigned as editor of Spektrum she earned a living by providing translations and writing short stories for weekly publications as well as writing longer literary pieces.
When she ran out of money Karin Boye returned to Sweden. There she announced herself as a “Ny Kvinna” (new woman) by openly living as a lesbian. A young Jewish girl named Margot Hanel, whom Karin Boye had met in Berlin, came to live with her in 1934. At this time Karin Boye worked as a literary critic for the Arbetaren newspaper, and later for the Social-Demokraten paper. From 1936–1938 she was employed at the Viggbyholm school, an educational reform school, where she made a lot of good friends. However, the lack of time she had for her own writing became a source of stress, as was the lack of public recognition. She developed compulsive behaviour which included repeated attempted suicides, albeit she always provided clues to facilitate being found and saved.
An emphasis on conformity following Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany in 1933 had led to the creation of a totalitarian state. Book bonfires were held to destroy books which did not agree with the ideology of national socialism. Karin Boye had already in 1934 turned her attention towards the influence the German politicisation of Nietzche’s life philosophy was having on leading Swedish literary critics. She viewed art as an important arena of freedom from the various authoritarian-bound traditional views on what was forbidden – that which was to be warded off, excised, removed. To her literature was a place for investigation and to conquer reality.
Both of Karin Boye’s novels Kris, published in 1934, and Kallocain, published in 1940, are stories of renewal. They tell of the loss of meaning and the lack of voice suffered by the lead characters after the thing which is of the highest value, from which everything else is given a value, has ceased to be valid. In the first of the novels the dominant power which is all-encompassing is God, whilst in the second novel this power is the state. The lead characters move from being willing obedient tools to a position where they are instead supported by their own value-endowed desires which serve as the basis for survival and life. By using everyday stories – about a young trainee teacher in Kris and a scientist, a chemist, in Kallocain – Karin Boye reveals that the confrontation between one’s image of self and one’s view of the world provided a route out of a culture which had become sterile.
After Karin Boye had portrayed her own break with contemporary norms regarding female roles and sexual laws her submission in the 1935 poetry collection called För trädets skull reveals a new freedom. By referring to patterns of ancient religious fertility rites she sought, as a poet, to release the song of the new humanity following the death of its older version. However, the reception this modernist poetry collection received was influenced by the same male perspectives and 1800s-era criteria which had been applied to her earlier work.
Whilst Karin Boye was caring for her close friend Anita Nathorst during her terminal cancer illness, she also completed her final major piece of writing, the aforementioned Kallocain. It was published in 1940 just as another world war was erupting. Given that open criticism of totalitarian society had been permanently silenced in Germany here Karin Boye made her own writing, as part of the resistance aesthetic at a time when humanity had become a cog in a wheel, the theme of the book.
In 1941 Karin Boye’s lifeless body was found on a mountain near Alingsås at a view point which she had often frequented with Anita Nathorst. Opinions vary as to whether this was the result of a planned suicide or whether nefarious elements were involved. The police, however, made nothing of the fact that Anita Nathorst had advised them where she could be found.
Karin Boye is buried at the Östra cemetery in Gothenburg.