Writing an Austere Richness

On a writer's complicated career

Jan Henrik Swahn was born in 1959 in Lund. He grew up in Copenhagen and from 1970 on has lived in Malmö. His first novel, I Can Stop a Sea, about life in two gangster’s houses in a poor village in Normandie, was published in 1986 by Bonniers, the biggest publishing house in Sweden. The ten novels that followed were all published by Bonniers, and he was chief editor of Bonniers Literary Magazine from 1997-1999.

Swahn has worked as a bridge keeper, saying of his experiences: “Boats were few and far between, especially in winter, and I spent many an hour sitting in [the] tower, waiting for the next boat and writing short stories, studying, and translating books from Polish, French and Danish into Swedish.” He has also worked with children that need special care. For five years he worked as a volunteer with women whose background included homelessness, prostitution, drugs, and abuse of every kind imaginable.

Perhaps because of this he often writes about marginalized people: alcoholics, the homeless, ‘creasy’ people, lonely people, old people. Beggars (1999) is about empathy and poverty and a society that has “us—and them.” A man wants to give money to a beggar, but which one? There is always something that makes them unworthy of his charity, until finally he himself becomes a beggar.

Swahn’s novel The Money, (1996), about a boy who decides that he is going to get rich, but has no talent to let money work for him, won the TCO Award, a prize given by The Swedish Central Organization of Salaried Employees (100 000 SEK) in 1997. The book was also nominated for Swedish Radio prize for the year’s best novel, and received an award from the Swedish Academy. The protagonist gets rich, but it takes him a lifetime, and his life is an existential catastrophe.

In 2001 Swahn received the literary prize of Goteborgs-Posten, the third biggest newspaper, a prestigious prize. The same year his novel The Wanderers, about a bus driver who only stops when he sees somebody that he believes has a story to tell, a kind of modern Scheherazade myth, was also nominated for the Swedish Radio prize for the year’s best novel. Perhaps most importantly, it was one of the five novels nominated for the August Price, maybe the only literary prize well known abroad; ten publishing houses immediately took options on the book, and after someone else won the prize, promptly dropped it. It was published in Greece, as was The Wanderers.

The Dragon Woman (2005) is an autobiographical novel about the writer’s life on a small Greek island where he encounters problems with a woman neighbor. Swahn has spent a great deal of time in Greece, about a third of the year for the past two years, and plans to be there more. He works better there, he says, life is less complicated and he can make a living doing translations, work which he is turning to more and more. He helps immigrant writers translate into Swedish. “They do manage to find ways to publish,” he says.

In 2005 he was awarded the Sture Linnér prize for The Dragon Woman and for his translations of Greek poetry. In the Frankfurt Book Fair catalogue, his style of writing and humor is compared with Hrabal and the films of Jiri Menzel; he has been called Sweden’s only eastern European writer.

I became aware of Jan Henrik Swahn in 2005, when I was living in Latvia and had started a literary agency there called The Baltic Edge. I was able to find a publisher for The Damned Joy (1987), published in Greek in 2003, translated into Hebrew, in the Cafon series by Israeli publishing house Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 2008.

Jan Henrik Swahn speaks Swedish, Danish, French, Polish, a little Czech, German (after some beers), and Greek. He has translated from Greek into Swedish and has been studying Arabic for eight years. His English is good enough that he was able to translate his tenth novel, Manolis’ Five Mopeds (return tomorrow for an excerpt!), which I edited for him. It is a beautiful novella, about the richness of memory of a simple life set in Greece. He later paid a translator to edit the manuscript again, and it was published in India through a poet he met on Visby through the writers’ residencies there. He will only receive royalties for this if over 600 copies are sold. In September the novel will be published in Greece, Swahn having paid for the translation. He could no longer obtain funding from Sweden to pay for the translation since he had already had a book published in Greece.

Of course the economic crash hit hard; Swahn told me that Bonniers lost thousands when Lehman Brothers failed in 2008. He had emailed me in 2007 that for the first time in his life he had had to take out a loan in order to pay the rent and living expenses.

Swahn’s eleventh book was My Life As A Novel, published by Bonniers. “It got good reviews so we were drinking champagne,” he says, “But a few months later Bonniers kicked me out because of bad sales.”

He had had a new editor to deal with. “I don’t know what she likes and what she thinks,” Swahn said. “I don’t know what books she reads.”

“I gave her two manuscripts, she was totally at a loss.” The first of the two is about twelve different women meeting in a café, consisting of monologues, one can’t really say where it takes place. The editor said she couldn’t tell who was saying what. Swahn says, “That is of the least importance to me.”

Swahn feels that the role of the editor is to defend the writer to the sales department, and instead she was taking the side of the sales department. “I suppose I wasn’t really kicked out,” he says, “She suggested I go somewhere else.”

He didn’t do anything for two months because he was so depressed, then started sending out manuscripts again. When I met him in person for the first time in June, he told me that he may turn to a small publishing house, but knows he would be marginalized. He has translated important work by a Greek writer of 100 years ago for a small publishing house in Gothenburg that would be happy to also publish his work. “I have ideas for more novels, but it’s hard to want to write with two unpublished,” he says.

“I’m called humorous. I’m highly estimated by many critics but my books seem impossible to sell, which is stupid, because they are not difficult, just a little bit hard to get into since I’m not following the pattern. The first six novels never sold more than 1500, the next three, maybe 5,000, after I was nominated for and awarded various literary prizes. But I still rather consider myself as completely unknown.”

Swahn’s novels often have a background of historical documentary. Love and Adventure (1991) depicts a man coming to Poland some years before the close of the communist era. All the Colors of the House (1993) consists of three different stories tied to the same house: one from the period of German and Russian occupation of Estonia, one about a stubborn farmer, and one an unhappy love story. The King of the Lingonberries (2003) is about a real, known person’s life—a man who was born very poor but became a multimillionaire by exporting lingonberries and potatoes to Germany (the protagonist in the novel The Money is rather an anti-hero juxtaposed against this). His second unpublished manuscript, still in progress, is about his wife’s father, set in Saudi Arabia and Sweden, international because he was a journalist.

In Greece, he stays at his house on Samos or in the olive groves of the Pelopponese, a mountainous region where the people are very poor. “They can sell their olive oil, which costs them a good deal to produce, for two Euros max,” Swahn says. “I began buying bottles to bring to Sweden where they were bought for fifteen Euro, considered cheap. But then all the neighbors started asking me to do this for them too, and I had to say, there are limits! I am a writer, not a purveyor of olive oil!”

Ten years ago if one sent a manuscript to a publisher in Sweden, it would be returned with a short review along with the rejection letter; now it is sent back without comments.  Now one can send a manuscript to the Writers Center and request a review, done by Swahn, who is paid for this.

He feels that many of the manuscripts are at very high levels and are publishable. “I don’t tell the writers that,” he says. “They’d get all excited and send it out to publishers, and it would be rejected, and they’d think I had been lying to them.”

“The system is not working anymore,” he says.

He sees two possibilities for the future. “That I become like my father who hated to beg publishers, put finished manuscripts in a drawer and worked on something else. A publisher would come and drink wine with him in the kellar and ask when leaving, do you perhaps have something for me? My father would say, take a look in the drawer, and maybe he’d pull out a collection of poetry, some essays. He was a very good translator and very fast. His books didn’t get the recognition they should have. I would like to avoid this a little.”

Inara Cedrins is an artist, writer, and translator from Latvian to English.