*Bengtsson, Frans G.
Bengtsson, Frans G.
Frans G.Bengtsson was the pre-eminent Swedish essayist of the 20th century, successful as the first practitioner of the informal essay in Sweden. Bengtsson associated with literary circles formed at the University of Lund in the early part of the 20th century, although his indifferent performance as a student camouflaged a brilliant mind later given full rein in his essays.
Bengtsson won a large reading public with his historical novel, Röde orm (1941–45; The Long Ships), a work considered by some to have contributed to a reawakening of interest in Viking civilization. He was particularly interested in history, as many of the essays demonstrate, being in some sense historical or based on historical incidents or people. In the 1920s he began publishing historical sketches in the Swedish periodical Ord och Bild (Word and picture), the first of which dealt with Joseph Conrad (1924). It was with his first volume of essays, Litteratörer och militärer (1929; Literary and military figures), that his career as an essayist blossomed. The collection contains several historical sketches, as well as pieces of literary criticism and literary history. Subjects include Sir Walter Scott, sagas, and King Charles XII of Sweden (whose biography he also wrote). He was also interested in historic figures from the American Civil War such as Abraham Lincoln, Jeb Stuart, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Subsequent essay collections include Silversköldarna (1931; The silver shields), De Iånghåriga merovingerna (1933; The long-haired Merovingians), Sällskap för en eremit (1938; Company for a hermit), För nöjes skull (1947; For pleasure’s sake), and the posthumous Folk som sjöng (1955; People who sang), as well as a volumes of selected essays in Swedish and in translation (A Walk to an Ant Hill, 1950).
Bengtsson was an intensely personal writer, indeed reserved to the point of being secretive. Anyone looking for biographical information will find little available. Whether this reflects his pessimistic philosophy and aestheticism is a matter of conjecture.
Swedish critics have pointed out parallels with both Klara Johanson and German idealism, going back to Schopenhauer. Others have identified Bengtsson as both an aesthete and an entertainer.
Bengtsson’s use of language, his diction, his large vocabulary, and the literary quality of his formulations are clear indications of why he has not been surpassed by his countrymen as an essayist. He characteristically quotes in foreign languages, but nonetheless carries his learning lightly, managing to combine an encyclopedic knowledge with a relaxed, informal tone and style. As Alrik Gustafson describes in A History of Swedish Literature (1961), Bengtsson’s essays are an amalgam of “the whimsicalities of Charles Lamb, the vigor and independence of spirit of William Hazlitt, and the heroicromantic idealism of Robert Louis Stevenson.” His progress through an essay can best be described as leisurely, displaying a penchant for tangents, interjections, and personal reflections. He writes with charm and enthusiasm, particularly for historical subjects.
Apart from his historical sketches, his subject matter ranges widely—from the art of lying, detective literature, and chess playing, to battles between red and black ants, ghost stories, and a childhood visit to a photographer—the more exotic and whimsical the better.
In addition to being an essayist, Bengtsson was a successful translator, translating into Swedish such works as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In both his essays and translations, Bengtsson was a storyteller and was thus not necessarily aiming for historical accuracy. His work has been “unparalleled”—deserved praise for both the translations and the essays.
Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. Born 4 October 1894 in Tossjö, near Kristianstad. Studied at the University of Lund, fil.kand., 1920, fil.lic.,1930. Married Gerda Fineman, 1939. Died in Ribbingsfors, 19 December 1954.
Essays and Related Prose
Litteratörer och militärer, 1929
Silversköldarna, och andra essayer, 1931
De långhåriga merovingerna, och andra essayer, 1933
Sällskap för en eremit, 1938
För nöjes skull, 1947
A Walk to an Ant Hill and Other Essays, translated by Michael Roberts and Elspeth Schubert, 1950
Tankar i gröngräset (selected essays), 1953
Folk som sjöng, och andra essayer, 1955
Äreräddning för Campeadoren (selected articles), 1986
Other writings: novels (including Röde orm [The Long Ships], 1941–45), poetry, a two-volume biography of King Charles XII of Sweden (1935–36), and memoirs (1953).
Also translated several works, including Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Collected works edition: Samlade skrifter, 1950–55.
Ehnmark, Elof, Frans G.Bengtsson, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1946
Harrie, Ivar, Legenden om Bengtsson, Stockholm: Norstedt, 1971
Lundkvist, A., Frans G.Bengtsson, essayisten, Stockholm: Tiden, 1941
Thompson, L.S., “Frans G.Bengtsson, 1894–1954,” Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly 2 (1955)
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