Tora Dahl was one of the great autobiographical novelists of Swedish literature.
Tora Dahl was born in Stockholm. She was the daughter of architect Theodor Dahl and Emma Nilsdotter, a baker. She was born while her parents were engaged (a so-called ‘engagement child’ in Swedish). Her parents never did marry. Tora Dahl was given away and grew up in Nacka with her foster mother, Emma Kjärr. Her earliest years were spent living in simple conditions albeit she describes them as happy times in her autobiographical novels. When she was eleven years old she went to live with her birth mother in Östermalm and at that point her life became more complex. Her fraught relationship with her mother is a recurring theme within her books.
Tora Dahl gained her school-leaving certificate when she was just sixteen years old. She then continued her education at Stockholms högskola (college) where she joined the first corps of female students. She gained her Bachelor’s degree in the sciences in 1908, after which she worked as a teacher until she married Knut Jaensson in 1914. He had studied history of art and languages and trained as an artist. He was living off of his inheritance from his father and, until he lost his capital during the economic turbulence of the 1920s, the couple led a comfortable and good life where the focus lay on their studies and intellectual conversations. Following the loss of their capital, however, Knut Jaensson took a job at the Stockholm gas-works.
During the 1930s Knut Jaensson made his debut as a literary critic whilst Tora Dahl released her first novel. It was not long before Knut Jaensson became an influential literary critic and introduced the Swedish public to modern European literature. The couple’s home began to function as somewhat of a literary salon which catered to young modern authors of the day.
Tora Dahl’s journey towards becoming an author was a long one. She had begun to write before she turned 20 but did not release her debut work until 1935, at which point she was already 49 years old. She not only released her first book, Generalsgatan published in 1935, but also two further novels during that decade. It is, however, Tora Dahl’s extensive autobiographical output which made her a significant figure within Swedish literature. She wrote eighteen books within this genre, making her unique. Few, if any, Scandinavian authors have undertaken a similarly intensive and lasting struggle with the autobiographical genre as Tora Dahl did. The books cover a time period which spans almost a full century. The stories begin shortly after the breakthrough of modernism at the end of the 1800s. Tora Dahl’s drawn out portrayal of one woman’s journey through what was then modern Swedish history is not just a unique example of cultural history, it also provides a different, fascinating, and – to many – provocative literary history through its consistent use of the female perspective. From her university years onwards, and particularly during the 1930s and 1940s, Tora Dahl moved amongst the authors who were significant factors within the development of Swedish literature. Young modernists, such as Artur Lundkvist, Gunner Ekelöf, Erik Lindegren, Erik Asklund, Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson – and many, many more – were some of the frequent guests at the home of Tora Dahl and Knut Jaensson.
When viewed in terms of narrative technique Tora Dahl’s autobiographical series can be divided into three sections which differ from each other not just in tone but also in theme and aesthetics. Tora Dahl herself marked an important line of differentiation between her eighth and ninth books: När du kommer ut i livet, published in 1966, and En bit på väg, published in 1968. Her first eight books – which go up to and included the summer when she gained her school-leaving certificate – are all written in the third person and the lead character is named Gunborg. Tora Dahl adopts the first-person narrator in her ninth book, En bit på väg, and the lead character now bears her name for the rest of the series.
The Gunborg books can in many ways be taken as a complete entity. As such they form one of the great portrayals of childhood within Swedish literature. The tone of the second series is considerably darker. When Tora Dahl transitioned to writing pure autobiography she not only changed the external form but the aesthetics of her expression change as well, whilst both the timbre and the authorial perspective also change. The “geniuses” who dominate her circle of friends at college – which include the poets Gustaf-Otto Adelborg and Ivar Conradson – are portrayed as crudely elitist and misogynistic. These individuals also came to have a destructive influence on Tora Dahl’s marital life. The talkative and energetic young girl as portrayed in the earlier series has been transformed into a depressive, tired, and silent woman. Although Tora Dahl’s autobiographical books can be read as a complicated but nevertheless successful story about a journey towards becoming a writer, they also represent a story of disillusionment.
The upward trajectory of development which is traditional in autobiography is repeatedly contravened by Tora Dahl. The tone of her story, which had already darkened before she turned 20, becomes not just mournful in the later series but even bitter and furious in extended sections. The text becomes increasingly fragmentary and those bits which deal with socialising with the modernists, Kamraterna, published in 1978, and Nya Vägar, from 1979, appear rather like stark reports of humiliation. Some members of the old writers’ circle publicly defended themselves and the by then long-deceased Knut Jaensson following the release of these books.
Tora Dahl went from being somewhat sidelined in her early life to gaining a lot of attention, almost to the point of becoming an icon, from female reviewers upon the release of the latter section of the series in the 1970s. In the eighteenth and final part of the autobiography, Återseenden published in 1980, the text once again regains a more harmonious character. In this book Tora Dahl describes how she is at last ready to write about the earliest part of her life, Fosterbarn.
Tora Dahl died in 1982.