Ruth Halldén was a well-known and much liked literary reviewer, who was active during the second half of the twentieth century.
Ruth Halldén was born in Sundsvall in 1927. She was the daughter of wholesale merchant Erland Dahlström and his wife Olga. Her personal description of her hometown in the book Tankar om kultur, 1999, contains vivid memories from her childhood. In 1950 she married Sören Halldén, senior lecturer at Uppsala University, who later became professor of theoretical philosophy at Lund University. She herself studied at Uppsala and gained a Master of Arts in Swedish and German in 1951. The couple settled in Lund in 1964 and remained there for the rest of their lives.
Although Ruth Halldén tried to be a teacher, it was journalism that she found most appealing. Having tested the waters of the local press she was invited by Upsala Nya Tidning to write for them. From 1953 she produced literature, theatre and film reviews and also causerie-style articles which gave her ample stylistic freedom. Her debut as an author came through a collection of poems entitled Hus utan trädgård, published in 1959. The poems alternated various themes that were representative of her time, such as female loneliness, depression and music, tinged with the cold of winter and snow. The influence of Edith Södergarn is apparent in the poems “Arenan”, “Gud” and “Ecce homo”. Ruth Halldén’s collection called Landskap i gult och guld, 1963, comprised poems that were more sociable in their tone, albeit written on the same basic themes. The poem “Modern” portrays an unhappy woman and contains autobiographical overtones. “Kurort” depicts Bath, where the narrator sees her pain disappear: ”it is related to straightforwardness and coolness / classicism is the ointment of those who are unhappy.”
After 1963 Ruth Halldén stopped writing fiction. She seemed to lack the self-confidence and the strength to express herself through that medium, despite the early support she received from her father and the subsequent support she received from her husband. However, she trusted her ability to critically review, and she used this method to painfully express the central values of her life.
Ruth Halldén quickly gained a profile as a reviewer. She was reputed to be spiritual and up for a fight, as well as being opinionated. When writing her causerie-style articles she used her drastic sense of humour to depict the impossible nature of women’s roles in society. Her feeling for comedy was spurred on by situations where she could balance fun with danger. When portraying an elegant hostess using the pseudonym of Fru X in Upsala Nya Tidning in 1962 she took examples from her own life: “Oozing with sweat and bacon in your hair, burns on your arms and swear words on your lips, you stand and cook some infernal concoction in your witch’s den of a kitchen. And then the doorbell goes and you rush out laden down with whisks and ladles, reeking of onion and herrings, and screeching with horror, causing your guests to back away. – Are you already here you nutters, what are you like? Come in, come in, get the wine out lazy, get lost you irritating kids, welcome, welcome, where is the coat rack, shut the door to keep the draught out, do you want a slap you rascal, come in, come in.” Misfortunes can be laughed at as long as they are the author’s own experience.
In Upsala Nya Tidning Ruth Halldén wrote about all kinds of literature: Swedish and foreign, prose, poetry, dissertations in literary history, general textbooks, Swedish and foreign journals, and on art, museums and travels. Her early critical reviews also contained first articles on authors whom she would then keep track of throughout the years, for example Klara Johanson, Tora Dahl, Francoise Sagan, Virginia Woolf, Graham Swift, John Updike, and classical English writers such as Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. She was a multifaceted and well-liked writer but she downed tools abruptly when she realised that her contributions were poorly recompensed. She was quick to react to unfairness, even on behalf of others, which also meant that colleagues who were more diplomatic in their behaviour were often thankful for her input. She was a person of great integrity, and remained so throughout her life.
After she stopped working for Upsala Nya Tidning, Ruth Halldén began to write for Dagens Nyheter, having been encouraged to do so by Olof Lagercrantz. She was employed as a freelancer in 1963 and became a fulltime reviewer in 1967. Apart from a brief break in 1990 related to changes in the paper, when she reacted to Arne Ruth’s and the editorial board’s poor relationship with its staff outside of Stockholm, she was one of Dagens Nyheter’s most read and most treasured writers. She also wrote for Svenska Dagbladet and for the geographically closer Sydsvenska Dagbladet, as well as for magazines like Ord & Bild in the 1960s and Moderna Tider in the 1990s.
In the book Kultursidan. Kulturjournalistiken i Dagens Nyheter 1864-2012 Åke Lundqvist describes Ruth Halldén’s first appearance in Dagens Nyheter: “Halldén made her debut with an article on Kenneth Graham’s classical children’s book Det susar i säven, and immediately demonstrated her talents: Toad has “the elegant, uncomplicated manner which is God’s gift to all fools”. This is Ruth Halldén in a nutshell: harshly judgmental, with a keen eye for bloated pretentiousness and one-liners which you cannot forget.” Her best articles were written for Dagens Nyheter between 1960 and the early 2000s. She became dependent on the rhythm of the daily paper: the countdown to the deadline only served as a stimulator to her. Her collected works comprise a large number of highly qualified articles: in addition to reviews and other articles on the culture and arts pages, she also contributed interviews, travelogues and causerie-style articles.
Ruth Halldén’s articles reveal her broad knowledge of contemporary novels, particularly as regards English-language authors given her consistent commentary on the work of the Swedish translators. She wrote about literary history and was especially interested in psychological, indeed almost psychiatric, issues and homosexuality among writers. She developed a clearly feminist line in her early articles on Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer and Angela Carter. She remarked on society’s concrete social relationships, and on the conditions required for freeing oneself of them. Her book, Vid romanens rötter, 1997, reveals a fondness for the rational and pro-reform literature of the 1700s. She also wrote insightful articles on the radicals of the 1800s who contributed to the emancipation of women, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Friedrich Engels and John Stuart Mill, and connected them to writing women in Viktorianer & radikaler, 2004.
Ruth Halldén’s reviews in Dagens Nyheter appeared against the background of a gradually weakening in the institution that was the reviewing world. The seriousness with which she approached her job as a reviewer can seem heavy to modern eyes, but it always provided the foundation for her arguments. Her article “Naturligt urval i paradise”, presented on 30 August 1988 – the very same day that Bonnier publishing house held their annual party for authors and reviewers at Manilla – was intended to provoke anger, as was her question of conscience: “Should reviewers and authors ever be acquainted at all?”
With regard to the debate on Swedish novels versus non-fictional prose and foreign fictional literature, which played out during the turn of the year 1989/1990, she wrote: “Reading the average Swedish novel is like sitting on a train which has suffered a breakdown in the Nässjö region on a foggy November night with a view across a pine tree forest. The light is insipid, and the hot water dispenser with its lukewarm contents has just stopped humming. Nothing should happen, because it’s nice that nothing is happening.” Those who responded negatively to this claimed that the image was evidence of a hatred toward culture in its own right. Despite this, Ruth Halldén continued to appraise literature in an upright and unembellished manner. However, influenced by the debate of 1989/1990 Ruth Halldén said she only wanted to write about writers who were already dead or foreign, and this came to be misconstrued as though it applied to all her output.
Ruth Halldén’s temperament as a reviewer was such that she was open about when she felt upset or happy, which was something more dispassionate reviewers avoided. Ruth Halldén’s reviews were pieces of writing which had been reworked and reflected her personal views. Above all, she was a master of precision and of conveying visual imagery. Her most prominent triumphs as a reviewer were probably marked by her wit, but she still believed that her most important role was to convey the most important reading experiences. This was also the basis of her book En bra bok. Femtio förslag, 1991, which instead of revealing Ruth Halldén as a stylist focuses on her reliability as a judge. She was passionate about getting the public to read forgotten authors who had once risen above their circumstances and had written a masterpiece.
Ruth Halldén died in Lund in 2014.