Birgitta Trotzig and the Language of Religious and Literary Experience

Article excerpt

A ceux enfin dent les chemins d'encre et de sang passent par les vocables et par les hommes

Edmond Jabes

IN THE COMPANY OF CONTEMPORARY SWEDISH WRITERS, Birgitta Trotzig is probably not to be counted among the most widely read. She has been, though, the recipient of numerous awards, prizes, and distinctions--among which must certainly be counted her election to the Swedish academy in 1993--and has engaged the attention of an ever-growing circle of readers, who admire the sensitivity of her ethical vision, the empathy of her social engagement, and the resonances of her fundamentally religious but never facile hope of engaging the divine in spite of the overwhelming abundance of evil and injustice in the world. From within a context that has in recent years become aggressively more secular in both a social-political as well as an aesthetic-intellectual sense, her voice has invited a reassessment of both the historical as well as the contemporary role that traditional religious considerations might play in society even in the face of extreme forms of deprivations, humiliation, and dehumanization. Her career as a novelist, poet, and essayist is notable for its singularity and is widely recognized as virtually without parallel in the history contemporary Swedish literature. She, thus, is not in any obvious ways to be readily understood in terms of any of the major trends or developments that have characterized the development of Swedish literature over the last forty years. She too has eschewed attempts at categorization in terms of the usual literary historical categories insisting, rather, that she has never belonged to any school or group. Relatively few obvious points of thematic, stylistic, or conceptual contact to other important recent writers, moreover, immediately suggest themselves. As recent intertextual studies have demonstrated, hers is not a voice crying in the wilderness. Her expanding oeuvre consists in many respects of an ongoing conversation with a wide variety of other texts extending over several centuries.

Trotzig was born in 1929 in Goteborg, where she later studied art and literary history and received her degree in 1948. Upon the completion of her education, she became a regular and appreciated contributor to Aftonbladet and Bonniers Litterara Magasin writing on a wide range of topics of broadly cultural, intellectual, and social interest. These articles revealed the shifting and maturing concerns that were part of a deeply personal search. In the early `60s, she moved from Sweden to Paris with her husband, the respected artist Ulf Trotzig. In Paris, she converted to Roman Catholicism, an important step in her long and ongoing spiritual quest that had been portended in her works for more than ten years. As had been the case with Osten Sjostrand a decade earlier, her conversion brought her into intimate spiritual and intellectual proximity with the broader neo-Catholic tradition and important aspects of French culture; it also introduced her to Christian as well as Jewish mysticism--especially that of San Juan de la Cruz--and to the thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), in whom she has maintained an abiding interest.(1) Although she finds spiritual sustenance in many of the same strains of Catholicism as Sjostrand had, their reflection in her works is more subtle and indirect than they are in Sj6strand's early works--unio and Invigelse--which embody the most direct literary expression of his religious commitment.

A powerful undercurrent flowing through her works uniting them in a way that offers a degree of interpretive cohesion is a profounnd but never simple religious commitment that struggles--often seemingly in vain--to account for the suffering and evil in the world. Trotzig has become widely understood as a writer whose evocative narratives disclose a dark and disconsolate view of the human condition with little possibility of circumventing humiliating, degrading, and at times tragic defeat while searching with considerable anguish for some elusive trace of divine benevolence, mercy, or love. …