Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer wins Nobel for literature

The Swedish Academy selected a Swedish poet on Thursday as the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, a development likely to elicit two reactions from American readers:

Who? And huh?

Tomas Transtromer, 80, joined a long list of lesser-known writers who have won the award and its $1.45 million prize since the Nobel committee began handing it out in 1901. In addition to authors familiar to every American schoolchild — Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck — the award has gone to several Swedes over the years, including Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who shared the award in 1974. That Johnson and Martinson were members of the Swedish Academy, the 18-person committee that selects the literature prize, raised a few eyebrows.

But what looks like another inside job isn’t entirely. Transtromer may be unfamiliar to many American readers, but he was the subject of a Washington Post profile in 1986, his work has been translated into more than 60 languages, and his name has been kicked around among the Nobel-selecting crowd for years, along with such better-known writers as Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and even Bob Dylan (a betting favorite among British oddsmakers this week).

Which is not to say that Transtromer’s selection — marking the seventh time in the past 10 years that a European writer has won — didn’t inspire some questions. Moments after Transtromer’s name was read Thursday in the gilded Royal Swedish Academy hall, Nobel committee representative Peter Englund was on the defensive. “It’s been 40 years since this [a Swede winning] happened,” he said, missing by three years. “It’s not as if we spread it around” only to his countrymen. “I think we were quite thoughtful about this.”

Members of the American poetry community agree.

The New York publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux recently bought the rights to a collection of Transtromer’s poetry called “The Deleted World” and plans to release it in December. Jonathan Galassi, the president of FSG and an accomplished poet and translator himself, said Transtromer “has long been considered the Scandinavian author who ought to win the prize.” Speaking from London, Galassi called the new Nobel laureate “a hero of the deep image school of poetry.”

“He uses external reality, often rather grim, to reflect existential paradoxes and deep emotions,” Galassi said. “He’s very restrained and very sober. He’s like the Ingmar Bergman of poetry. I think he will appeal to American readers as a poet who brings emotion and ideas out of imagery in a very potent way.”

Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove said via e-mail: “I couldn’t be happier with the news. Awarding Transtromer the Nobel was long overdue.”

Graywolf, an independent publisher in Minneapolis, released a book by Transtromer called “The Half-Finished Heaven,” translated by Robert Bly, in 2001 and has kept the book in print ever since. Fiona McCrae, the publisher and director of Graywolf, said Thursday’s announcement “was a very welcome surprise, but not a shock. We thought he’d win several years ago, but when he didn’t, we’d trained ourselves not to get too hopeful.”

Hours after the prize was announced, Transtromer’s “The Great Enigma” (2006) soared onto the top-20 best-selling books on Amazon.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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