Sun Axelsson was one of the most prominent authors to emerge from the 1970s explosion in women’s autobiographies. Her portrayal of her childhood spent at the head gardener’s home at the Gothenburg Slottsskogen has become a modern classic.
Sun Axelsson was the youngest daughter of Karl Edvin Axelsson, a head gardener in Gothenburg, and his German-born wife Mignon. Sun Axelsson grew up in the Slottsskogen head gardener’s house. Following an interrupted education in Gothenburg she gained her school-leaving certificate in Stockholm in 1956. She then attended Stockholms högskola (college), qualified as a teacher, and subsequently worked as a literary critic for cultural publications such as BLM and Ord & Bild as well as for several daily- and evening-papers, including Expressen, Aftonbladet, and Stockholms-Tidningen. Her marriage to the British sculptor Michael Piper (1921–1997) lasted from 1963–1974. Her life companion is usually named as Stig Björkman.
Sun Axelsson made her debut as a writer when she published a naïve poetry collection entitled Mållös in 1959. She made her first public breakthrough three years later when she released her very special travelogue called Eldens vagga in 1962. In it she portrayed her own travels through Chile in the early 1960s expressed with deep intensity and an almost lyrical form. The country’s beauty and the local people left her shaken and deeply impacted. Although the book is mainly a loving tribute to a country it already displays the strong sense of loss of self and pain which came to pervade her writing. In 1979 Sun Axelsson and Stig Björkman made a film called Gå på vattnet om du kan which was based on Eldens vagga.
In her next novels, Väktare from 1963 and Opera Komick from 1965, Sun Axelsson upped the tone and developed the black surrealist form of humour which went on to become a trademark of her prose. Both of these novels portray life and human relationships as a continuous role-playing in which masks are removed and donned and nothing is certain. The characters find themselves on the edge of the abyss where doom – the eradication of the subject – is always frighteningly close at hand.
Following her marriage to Michael Piper in the early 1960s Sun Axelsson spent lengthy periods living on the Greek island of Leros where she and her husband purchased a house and settled down in order to live out their artistic dream. Later Sun Axelsson, in her final book Evighetens stränder from 2001, portrayed this as one of the happiest periods of her life. However, her first literary outcome from this period was actually a ferocious criticism of the oppression by the junta in Greece. She titled her book, published in 1969, Stenar i munnen and published it under the pseudonym of Jan Olov Hedlund. She later explained the decision to use a male pseudonym by the fact that no Greek would take the work of a woman seriously. Sun Axelsson’s political activism also emerged in her edited collection of witness statements in the 1974 book Terrorn i Chile.
Sun Axelsson’s second and really major public breakthrough came in 1978 with the publication of her autobiographical novel Drömmen om ett liv. She became one of the leading authors of the boom experienced during the 1970s within women’s autobiographical literature. This book and its sequels, Honungsvargar published in 1984 and Nattens årstid published in 1989, are generally seen as her best works and gained her not just recognition and attention but also several major literary prizes.
Sun Axelsson’s three autobiographical works portray her as thirsty for love and life whilst also being a defenceless and vulnerable young woman. The first part depicts her childhood surrounded by her dying and anxiety-prone mother, the greenery of Slottsskogen, and a number of rough brothers. Her escape appears through an early love affair with the poet Lasse Söderberg and her student years in Stockholm.
In the second part of her autobiographical trilogy, Honungsvargar, Sun Axelsson describes her journey towards joining one of the established literary circles which sprung up during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her mentors and father-figures included the likes of Artur Lundkvist and Åke Janzon. Her close friends included Pär Rådström, who had already gained cult status at that time, whilst the wider social circle numbered well-known poets such as Petter Bergman and Urban Torhamn. The young and beautiful Sun Axelsson appears to have served as a sort of muse for several of these men. It was in this context that she met the 25-year older Chilean poet Nicanor Parra with whom she fell deeply in love.
The third book, Nattens årstid, mainly plays out in Chile to which the 23-year-old Sun Axelsson travelled in order to be with her lover. However, once there she learns that he already has a family and is not the wonderful and generous lover she got to know in Stockholm. Nattens årstid portrays the almost hellish collapse of a love affair whilst also showing a young woman’s development and struggle for independence. Sun Axelsson spends time studying at Santiago de Chile university where she meets literary figures such as Pablo Neruda. When you compare this book to the travelogue she wrote shortly after her first time in Chile this account from two decades later is significantly darker in tone.
Honungsvargar was turned into a film by Christina Olofson in 1990 and adapted for the stage in 1997 by Dag Norgård. In 2000 the three autobiographical books were published as a collected edition entitled Ett eget liv. By then the genre had become established and Sun Axelsson was portrayed as a forerunner of the type of autofiction which became a notable literary trend in the early 2000s. The aforementioned Evighetens stränder can be seen as the fourth and final element in the series of autobiographical works. Whilst it is an account of everyday life on Leros during the time of the Greek junta it also serves as a memoire and homage to Sun Axelsson’s first husband Michael Piper and their life together.
Sun Axelsson’s written output is extensive. She published within many different genres, and further to the aforenoted poetry collections, novels, and autobiographies she also wrote a series of factual and polemical books. She additionally wrote several children’s books. One of her best known children’s books is Sagan om en saga, published in 1987 and translated into several languages, which comprises illustrations by Sven Nordqvist.
Sun Axelsson was a cosmopolitan who spent lengthy stretches of time in Latin America, Paris, and Greece. She portrays these countries and places in various books very lovingly. In 1990 she published her personal portrait of Paris entitled Jag har en själ i Paris, which includes emotive photographs by the well-known photographer Christophe Laurentin. Sun Axelsson was a great linguist and combined her writing with an extensive translation output. Her early translations of Pablo Neruda’s Den mjuka orkanen, from 1961, and Jorge Luis Borge’s Biblioteket i Babel, from 1963, became important sources of inspiration for young Swedish poets. She also translated a lot of Greek poetry. Her collected volume of poems entitled Denna stjärna är för oss alla, published in 1979, includes interpretations of poems by the likes of Jannis Ritsos and Manolis Anagnostakis.
Sun Axelsson died in 2011.