The Literature of Värmland, Past and Present
by Anna Maria Hellberg Moberg
Anna Maria Hellberg Moberg goes back to her writing roots, researching the literary heritage and contemporary authors of her native Värmland.
I hail from the wilds of Värmland, a rural region of western Sweden with a very specific claim to fame: for several centuries it has been a fertile breeding ground for creatives, from writers, poets and musicians to artists and sculptors. It has even been described as the ‘promised land’ of poetry and storytelling. Many creatives were born and bred here, while others were drawn to settle in the area, lured by the scenic, peaceful landscape of forests, lakes and rivers, dotted with small farming communities.
After many years abroad, I was curious to find out how much a sense of place matters to today’s Värmland authors. Is there a sense of a shared, and continuing, heritage? And is Värmland a living and thriving region today, culturally? To find out more, I spoke to several contemporary authors and people involved in other cultural pursuits. For me personally as a writer, hailing from a region steeped in literary, poetic and artistic traditions gives me a sense of continuity, especially as a woman writer. The first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940), was born and lived at Mårbacka Manor near Sunne in central Värmland. She continues to inspire new generations of writers to this day, and Mårbacka hosts a literary festival every summer.
Värmland was, and to some extent remains, one of the poorest parts of Sweden. In bygone days, oral history – (tall) tales told in manor house kitchens or by the home hearths in tiny hamlets – formed part of a lively storytelling tradition strongly associated with the region. This tradition often extended to poetry, thanks to popular poets such as Gustaf Fröding (1860-1911), who used regional dialect and expressions in his works, which resonated with his fellow Värmlanders. Poetry past and present often makes use of dialect, expressions and vocabulary particular to Värmland, but this phenomenon also spills over into prose, with entire works in ‘Värmländian’. This dialect shares far more similarities with Norwegian than so-called ‘national Swedish’ (the equivalent of ‘BBC English’).
If you ask the average Värmlander how to best describe the character traits and mentality of the people of Värmland, you’re presented with a whole host of contradictions. ‘Quick-witted’, ‘fun-loving’, ‘cheerful’, ‘storytellers’ and ‘a good sense of humour’ crop up as often as ‘nostalgic’, ‘morose’, ‘pensive’ and ‘wistful’. People of my ‘homeland’ often embody this heady mix of contradictions. This comes across in literature and even more so in poetry. Combined with this, occasionally jarring, mix is a sense of writing from the margins, away from the big cities, not least because Värmland is so close to another country. The Norwegian border runs the length of Värmland to the west, and this close proximity to its Scandinavian neighbour has helped shape the region. Oslo is closer than Stockholm, for example, and there is a certain cross-border affinity at play here. ‘Norwegian authors have meant as much to me as Swedish,’ says well-known, Sunne-based author Lars Andersson, who has even translated several Norwegian authors into Swedish.
‘Värmland was mentioned in writing as early as the 11th century by Adam of Bremen,’ says Helene Blomqvist, associate professor of comparative literature at Karlstad University. Interestingly, in his writings he mentions Värmland as a kingdom in its own right, between Norway and Sweden, belonging to neither. This ‘otherness’ and sense of separation from the rest of Sweden often surfaces in writing from the region.
Literary output gets underway in earnest from the 1700s onwards, with the late 19th to early 20th century described as the region’s ‘golden age’ of literature. Many of those now considered literary giants in the Swedish canon produced their most well-known and best-loved works at this time. They include novelist Selma Lagerlöf, and poets Gustaf Fröding and Nils Ferlin, among many others. Given that these writers published their works over one hundred years ago, how have they stood the test of time? In the case of Fröding, his popularity today is at least in part due to many of his poems being set to music, popularised by the group Sven-Ingvars. Interest in Lagerlöf’s writing has never truly waned, but it has seen an increase following the release of a film focusing on her personal life and relationships, as well as several new biographies. Modern day pop culture from music, TV and films has brought these golden-age writers and poets to new audiences, strengthening their parts in the fabric of Värmland’s popular culture.
These days, a crimewave is sweeping Värmland, and it’s often orchestrated by women. Luckily, this crimewave is fictional. The rise of ‘Nordic Noir’ has not escaped the region, and in recent years a whole host of new writers, many of them women, have produced an interesting array of crime novels. Not all the action takes place in situ, but many of this new era of writers hail from the region – Ramona Ivener, Ninni Schulman and Anna Tell, to name a few.
Värmland strikes me as a good place to be a writer. There are several literary societies – Föreningen Värmlandslitteratur (Society of Värmland’s Literature) and Värmländska Författarsällskapet (Society of Värmland Authors) – offering support, events and networking opportunities. Culturally speaking, the region has a lot to offer. ‘In my part of the world [Sunne], there are a number of venues that keep culture alive and well,’ says author Lars Andersson. ‘There’s an artist’s residence that hosts talks and lectures, recitals and concerts. There’s a lot going on, particularly in summer, partly thanks to a professional theatre group focused on literary and folk-music pursuits, partly due to being a centre for contemporary art – both are a big draw for audiences. Selma Lagerlöf continues to cast her benign shadow over this part of the world.’
Furthermore, the region has two main book festivals; Värmland’s Book Festival and The Literary Festival at Mårbacka. The former was originally a book fair until 2016, when it was taken over by local authority Region Värmland and moved to well-known entertainment venue Nöjesfabriken (The Entertainment Factory) in the capital, Karlstad. ‘The festival has three key areas,’ says Riccardo Andreis of Region Värmland, ‘authors from Värmland, sales and income for authors, and finally, promoting reading in young people, with a strong focus on schools. We usually get some 4,500 visitors to the festival every year.’ The programme is wide and varied, 120 events on average, and although the focus is on regional authors, national and Nordic authors have also participated. The main stage events are livestreamed, and this is a festival with ambition. ‘Both Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro sadly turned us down,’ Riccardo says with a smile, ‘but still, no harm in asking.’
The Literary Festival at Mårbacka is both newcomer and old hand, all at once. Well-known as the home of Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka’s literary roots go back over a century. However, despite a strong literary heritage, there was a noticeable lack of literary focus at Mårbacka itself. This is something Yvonne Ihmels, founder of the festival, and two colleagues wanted to do something about. ‘We felt a literary festival was missing at Mårbacka, and this was something we wanted to change’, she says. Over two days in July, the festival takes over the loft of Stora Ladan (the Large Barn) near the manor house, bringing literature back to its spiritual home. Festival planning started in 2019, and the first one took place in the summer of 2020. Pandemic rules in Sweden were less strict, so organisers were allowed to invite a maximum of fifty people to gather, and the festival was able to go ahead, albeit in a smaller version than intended.
‘Our focus is on contemporary literature,’ says Yvonne, ‘and each year has a different theme; “Women and Democracy” in 2021 and “Art as Resistance” in 2022, when authors from Belarus and Ukraine were invited and their texts were translated into Swedish.’ Most of the festival is held in Swedish, with some events in English, and it takes a wide approach, while staying true to its roots. ‘One event every year highlights Selma Lagerlöf’s writing – her literary legacy delves so deeply into the human condition, that the time period when her books take place doesn’t matter. I think we’re doing a good deed, reviving literary traditions and combining Selma Lagerlöf’s writing with that of contemporary authors,’ Yvonne adds. The theme for 2023 is ‘The Changeable Landscape’, and the festival takes place 28th-29th July.
‘Värmland is still very much a living literary landscape,’ says culinary writer Lena Sewall, ‘and people are writing like never before, since it’s so easy to publish books in this day and age. Literature in Värmland is thriving, with prominent authors like Lars Andersson, Marit Kapla and poet Bengt Berg.’ I feel prone to agree with her. Värmland strikes me as creatively alive today as it was in generations past, with new authors taking their writing in new directions, often inspired by the history and landscape of Värmland. I feel proud to be a writer from a region of such long-standing literary traditions, and I can feel this influence seeping into my own poetry and prose. It is a heritage to treasure.
Born in 1858 at Mårbacka Manor in central Värmland, Selma Lagerlöf is one of Sweden’s best-known authors of any era. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (1909) and the first woman member of the Swedish Academy (1914). Although she travelled widely, the majority of her stories are set in Värmland, including her debut novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga. Selma Lagerlöf is the author of over 30 works, many of which have been translated into English and other languages. She died in 1940, and her home, Mårbacka Manor, is now open to the public as a museum.
A contemporary of Lagerlöf and one of Sweden’s best-loved poets, Gustaf Fröding was born in 1860 at Alster, outside Karlstad. His first poetry collection, Gitarr och dragharmonika (Guitar and concertina) was published in 1891, and he continued to write up until his death, aged 50, in 1911, despite suffering from long bouts of mental illness and alcoholism. Many of his poems include typical expressions from Värmland or are written entirely in regional dialect. They’ve also become part of Swedish popular culture thanks to being set to music, recorded and performed by well-known artists, particularly Sven-Ingvars, a rock/pop group from Värmland formed in 1956 and still going strong.
Born in Karlstad in 1937 and raised in Sunne, Tunström, who passed away in 2000, was one of Sweden’s most influential writers of the latter half of the 20th century. Penning over 30 works, including novels and poetry, he won numerous awards and his books have been widely translated. Sunne and its surroundings feature as a key element in many of his books. Notable works include Tjuven (The Thief) and Juloratoriet (The Christmas Oratory). He maintained a friendship with Canadian Leonard Cohen after meeting him in Greece in the 1950s and translated Cohen’s poetry book Poems from a room into Swedish.
Värmland's Authors - Contemporary
(born 1954, Karlskoga, author of numerous literary works)
‘In 2023, my 19th, possibly 20th, novel will be released. The story isn’t focused on Värmland, but takes place in Ukraine in the year 990. Past novels take place in Norway (my debut novel), partly in India, partly in the USA, in South Africa, Latvia, modern-day and ancient Jerusalem and in Bratislava, and on occasion I’ve even managed to touch upon Stockholm. I’ve done travel journalism, literary criticism, essays and one (sole) poetry collection. But mostly, it boils down to being a provincially based novelist, living in Värmland these last 40 years, most of that time in the countryside. It has been said that my novels take place against a “Värmland backdrop”, often historical. My literary world is introspective and I’m certainly no crime writer. That said, I do have two crime novels on my conscience, but with a very introspective chief inspector. My books aim more towards “literature” than “fiction”, to use a sensible, English classification.
‘Gradually I’ve come to feel pleased and grateful to be anchored in Värmland; to have my own personal raw material, an “imagined homeland”, a connection to a certain corner of the world as a writer. My most extensive novel is a work of nearly a thousand pages, in two parts, focused on a small village by the Klarälven River, where my paternal grandmother and her ancestors lived from the early 1600s onwards, until my father moved out of that magical circle. (Magical to me as a writer, that is. The house remains and is now owned by me and my son.)
‘'I’m currently working on a biography of Göran Tunström, one of Sweden’s literary giants from the second half of the 20th century. Several of his novels have been translated into English, and several more into French and other languages.’
(born 1942, Uppsala, raised in Arvika, culinary writer and columnist)
‘Even as a child I wanted to become a writer, like Selma Lagerlöf, although I knew that was a pipedream. And I was right. I didn’t become a writer like Selma Lagerlöf, but I did, in time, become another kind of writer. My mother was a librarian and read all kinds of books to me and my younger brother. After a high school year in the U.S. I spent fifteen months volunteering as a journalist for Arvika Nyheter [Arvika News, a local newspaper] and, among other things, I wrote food features. I then took a long break from food writing, studying in Lund, working as a hospital librarian and writing three books on the subject of hospital libraries before starting work at Värmland’s regional library in 1992. Simultaneously, I became the food writer for regional newspaper Värmlands Folkblad, and in 1993 my first culinary book, focused on Skagen in Denmark, was published. It was translated into Danish and Norwegian, winning the Swedish Gastronomic Academy’s Golden Pen Award in 1995. Other books have followed, most recently Mina värmländska matrötter & liv med mat och vänner [My Värmland culinary roots & life with food and friends] in 2022. Another book is planned for 2024 or 2025. Since 2000 I’ve had a monthly food column in the regional newspaper Nya Wermlands-Tidningen. I was Värmland Author of the Year in 2017 and received H.M. the King’s Medal in 2018 for my work as an author. Food, people, art and handicrafts are my great interests, and this is something that’s mirrored in both my books and my feature writing.’
(born 1970, Malung, writer and cultural journalist)
‘I grew up in Osebol [north Värmland], but these last 25 years I’ve been based in Gothenburg. I’ve worked as a journalist for regional daily Värmlands Folkblad, and as creative director of Gothenburg’s film festival – both these experiences have influenced my writing. My first book, Osebol, was published in 2019 and it’s a literary documentary. I interviewed pretty much all the inhabitants of my old home village and presented their words, not as prose, but as poetry. The book was well-received by readers and critics alike and was given the August Award for best work of literary fiction (paradoxically) in 2019 [it has also been translated into English; Osebol: Voices from a Swedish Village]. My second book, Kärlek på svenska, [Love in Swedish] was released in 2022. It’s based on interviews with people from all over Sweden about their experiences of love. The big difference is that this time around I didn’t conduct the interviews myself, they were carried out by documentary filmmaker Staffan Julén, for his film of the same name. My two books are similar to each other, in that they centre on the voices of many different people and the text looks like poetry, lots of space on the pages. I like to stay close to what people say and preserve the oral quality of the stories and all the incredible details that only real life can provide.
‘My greatest source of inspiration when writing Osebol was the Belarussian author, Svetlana Alexievich. Like her, I wanted to interview a lot of people on the same subject, present their stories in the first person and edit out my own questions, so that the people in the book seemingly speak directly to the reader. But I also read many of Selma Lagerlöf’s works while writing the book. Her debut novel inspired me to write the first five pages of Osebol as a kind of introduction to the landscape and the environment around Osebol.’
Värmland’s Literary History Books
Plans for a written work charting how literature has shaped the region of Värmland and its inhabitants through history, focusing on texts and authors, were hatched some 10-12 years ago. This project resulted in two large volumes, published as the regional museum’s yearbooks in 2020 and 2021 (https://varmlandsmuseum.se/). I spoke to project leader Helene Blomqvist from Karlstad University to find out more.
‘Värmland is the literary region nr. 1 [in Sweden],’ she says. ‘Since the early 1700s, Värmland is well-known as an area where people not just tell good stories and tall tales, but also write prose.’ The books emphasise ‘Värmland in literature’ – how the region, its people, culture and mentality have been described in literature over the centuries. ‘The books are chronological, and volume I starts with ancient history and continues right up to the 1940s,’ Helene tells me. ‘It contains everything from runes, oral histories and folktales to literary fiction and poetry.’ Volume II, which covers the 1940s to the 2020s, has an even wider scope and embraces not just fiction, journalism and song lyrics, but also films and TV series. It even includes printing, book publishers, libraries and literary societies. Despite being well-known as a literary region for centuries, these are the first two books published that cover Värmland in literary history from ancient times to modern day.
We are grateful to everyone who contributed to this article.
For more information on Värmland's literary festivals, please visit: https://varmlandsbokfestival.se/ and https://marbacka.eu/.
Anna Maria Hellberg Moberg is a UK-based Swedish writer and journalist. She's the author of 20+ works of non-fiction (writing as Anna Maria Espsäter), three children's books and two collections of short stories for adults. Her most recent books are Wayward Wanderings, a travel memoir featuring 25 stories from around the world and The Traveller's Cookbook: South America, where she contributed the Uruguay and Colombia chapters. She writes in English, Swedish and Spanish.
For more information see: www.amhellbergmoberg.co.uk