Sara Lidman was an author. She was one of the great and innovative linguistic masters of modern Swedish literature.
Sara Lidman was born in the middle of a night-time snowstorm in December 1923 in the village of Missenträsk in northerly Västerbotten. She was the second youngest in a family comprising five children. As was typical in her day, she grew up in a multi-generational home in which agriculture and forestry were both practised at the family’s forest home. In addition to her siblings and parents, Andreas and Jenny, Sara Lidman’s paternal grandmother Sara Helena and Andreas’ two unmarried brothers, Anund and Arvid, also lived at the farm.
Sara Lidman’s family were deeply religious, like many others in the region. They were members of the Lutheran revival movement which was heavily influenced by Carl Olof Rosenius. Piety and the experiences of her childhood in the forest village played deciding roles in Sara Lidman’s choice of literary direction. From the very beginning her style bore the marks of a very original blending of dialectal usage, Biblical expressions, official jargon, and a poetic rhythmic feeling. Indeed this literary blending came to be described as though it were her very own idiom, a form of “Lidman-ish”. Sara Lidman successfully switched between literary and political expressions in her writing and this has placed her in a unique position within Swedish literature. As a result of the 13 novels, several plays, and a variety of essay collections that she produced she became an innovative linguistic artist.
However her journey towards becoming a writer was not the most direct. Just like other youths of her day who lacked financial means Sara Lidman found a backdoor into education and studying when she fell ill with tuberculosis as a teenager. The well-stocked library shelves at Hällnäs sanatorium and the intellectual exchanges she enjoyed with her friends were important elements in inspiring her to continue her education.
Once she had completed her basic schooling Sara Lidman began to study as an ‘Hermod’ student, and gained her junior school certificate in 1942 as a private student in Piteå. Through private loans from her family and neighbours and interspersed with periods in the sanatorium Sara Lidman was later able to obtain her school-leaving certificate at Mariannelund. She later went on to get her Bachelor of Arts degree in languages at Uppsala university.
Her student years at Uppsala coincided with Swedish literary modernism’s heyday. At Uppsala Sara Lidman gained an impression of current debates and the contemporary experimental spirit, particularly through the novels of Stina Aronson. Whilst also writing short stories – under a pseudonym – as part of her work providing pot-boilers for weekly papers she also wrote a range of articles and short stories for literary journals and she began to map out a route towards an independent authorship.
Sara Lidman herself often described her educational path as a journey between three universities. The first of these was the village and its inhabitants and it was where she learned to understand that the logic of colonialism meant that depopulation and deforestation went hand in hand. The second ‘university’ was Uppsala where she learned the meaning of class and style to be that of “svägningen mellan gravitation och grace” (the oscillation between gravitation and grace). The third ‘university’ emerged during her travels to Africa and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s where she finely honed her activism on behalf of peace, environmental issues and social justice.
Sara Lidman’s debut novel Tjärdalen, from 1953, was somewhat of a sensation given the record number of issues released – the number remained unbeaten for several decades. The story plays out during a mid-summer week in the 1930s in a small village in the forested northerly region of Västerbotten. One man and his family have their hopes of finding a way out of poverty dashed after a scoundrel sabotages his work at a tar pit. The village becomes involved in the conflict, and concepts of guilt and innocence are bandied back and forth. There are echoes of the post-war debates on existential and moral values shining through in the village’s tug-of-war regarding who is innocent, and where the boundaries of collective responsibility lie. In hindsight one can even see that the novel embodied the role of a saga for contemporary rural populations and in particular for the youth of the sparsely populated Norrland hinterlands. The novel also became a catalyst for “the marvellous story-teller from Västerbotten” and Sara Lidman became a role model for writers who succeeded her, such as P.O. Enquist, Kurt Salomonson, and Torgny Lindgren.
Following a short-lived marriage to the doctor Hans Gösta Skarby in Uppsala Sara Lidman moved to Gröndal in Stockholm in 1954. The success of her debut novel meant that she was now able to make a living on her writing. She produced another three novels in rapid succession, all of them focused on villages and their inhabitants: Hjortronlandet, from 1955, Regnspiran from 1958, and Bara mistel from 1960. This was followed by a shift in perspective both in terms of her life and her writing. She relocated from Norrland to “the global village”.
For a couple of years in the early 1960s Sara Lidman travelled and lived in South Africa and Kenya, where she discovered the material for her two novels Jag och min son, from 1963, and Med fem diamanter, from 1964. The colonial problem and policies of apartheid also hit her hard personally. She was arrested in 1961 for violating the race-laws – the so-called “immorality act” – after she had entered into a romantic relationship with a black man called Peter Nthite. The charge was later dropped and Sara Lidman was allowed to leave the country following a range of diplomatic interventions.
Sara Lidman became a leading international and domestic figure of the FNL (NLF) movement and the campaign against the American war in Vietnam. She became a political icon of the Swedish left-wing movement, who in her roles as public speaker and writer was as feisty as she was well-known. Her documentary books such as the 1966 Samtal i Hanoi and Gruva (with Odd Uhrbom) from 1968 confirmed her position as one of the primary opinion-formers of the day.
In 1975 Sara Lidman moved back to her childhood home of Missenträsk, not just to care for her elderly parents but also to begin her work on the series of novels which would become her masterpiece. In its final version Jernbanan, published 1977–1999, comprised seven novels in total. Just as she had previously been haunted by the village whilst on her global travels, now the wider world intruded upon her tales of the village. The novels follow three generations of the Mårtensson family in Lillvattnet parish during the turbulent period of the late 1800s until the mid-1900s, when a poverty-struck Sweden was transformed into the modern welfare state. To the characters in the story these promises seem false. The railway, which was intended to tie the sparsely populated northerly forested regions to the wealthy cities along the coast as well as to the capital city and the rest of “Schwärje” (a dialectical representation of the word for Sweden), was driven by the same logic that lay behind the Western world’s exploitation of their former colonies.
The counterforce to this is love, carried forward from generation to generation, from novel to novel, as a challenging question, which contrasts the possibilities of human life against the loss of human worth as reflected on the IOU of evolution. Sara Lidman’s vision of the concept of love includes modernity’s dream of an open and inclusive society, a democratic concept transformed for everyday use.
The historical models for the events portrayed in the novel series were partly inspired by Sara Lidman’s own family history, although the works are in no way autobiographical. Their fundamental themes are those of the dialectics between the poetical and the political, between mankind and the forest, and between love and modernity. Stylistically Jernbanan came to represent the conquest of a new form of novel prose: an ecology of “sam-vettet” (a shared consciousness, perhaps) within which human verbal discourse is continuously placed in dialogue with “trädens språk” (the language of the trees). In 1980 she became the first woman to be awarded the Nordic council’s literary prize for the second novel in the series called Vredens barn and published 1979.
Sara Lidman maintained contact with her village but also spent periods during the 1990s living with Leif Sjöberg, a professor of literature, in Stockholm. They remained life partners until his death. Sara Lidman donated the Missenträsk farm as a gift to Umeå university, to be hired out to researchers or authors requiring creative space or a place to relax. Sara Lidman was resident in Umeå during the final years of her life.
Sara Lidman died in Umeå in 2004. She was 80 years old. She is buried at Österjörn cemetery.