Swedish author Per Olov Enquist, described as “a giant among European writers” by his publisher, has died at the age of 85.
The author’s family told Swedish media that he died on Saturday night after a long illness. The much-celebrated novelist, playwright and poet, known by his initials PO, was winner of the Nordic Council’s literary prize and the Swedish Academy’s Nordic prize. His historical novel The Visit of the Royal Physician – set in the adulterous, backstabbing world of the 18th-century Danish courts, where the mad king Christian VII’s queen, the English princess Caroline Mathilde, falls in love with the court physician – won him the August prize, Sweden’s most prestigious literary award after the Nobel. It also made him the only Swedish author to take the Independent foreign fiction prize, the precursor to the International Booker, in 2001.
Enquist drew heavily on his own experiences in his writing, whether it was his oppressive childhood in a strictly religious home, his time as a college athlete, work as a journalist and his destructive alcoholism. Born in 1934 in Hjoggbole in Sweden’s far north, his books – including The Crystal Eye (1961), The Parable Book (2013), The Magnetist’s Fifth Winter (1964) and The March of the Musicians (1978) – have been translated into a dozen languages. He also helped write the screenplay for the film Pelle the Conqueror, which won an Oscar for best foreign language film.
Håkan Bravinger, literary director at his Swedish publisher Norstedts, said Enquist’s importance to Swedish literature cannot be overstated.
“Few have, like him, inspired other writers, renewed the documentary novel, revitalised Swedish drama and touched readers for more than half a century,” he wrote.
Christopher MacLehose, who published Enquist in the UK, called him “a giant among European writers”.
“He was a novelist of immense stature and range; he was also all his life a playwright; and he was a spellbinding speaker at literary events,” said MacLehose, calling Enquist “the kindest, most charming, most curious and witty of men.”
Enquist won a second August award for his 2008 autobiography A Different Life, its name a homage to A Life by August Strindberg, the father of modern Swedish literature. The process of writing A Different Life, Enquist said, allowed him to work through and leave behind painful memories of sleeping in a bed meant for his stillborn brother, of the void left by a father who died when he was not yet a year old, and of a strict mother who pushed him to invent sins to confess.
Known for his Gregory Peck-like frown and silver crown in his later years, Enquist broke free from his family, attending Uppsala University, where he discovered journalism and writing. He just missed qualifying for the Rome Olympics in the high jump in 1960. But as a journalist he covered the 1972 Munich Olympics when Palestinian militants took hostage and then killed members of the Israeli team.
Enquist’s transition to adulthood was scarred by depression, self-doubt and existential questions. “I think I wanted to be a writer all my life and I didn’t give up,” he told AFP in a 2011 interview, even though “it wasn’t so easy to survive” much of the time.
Enquist battled alcoholism for several years. After two failed attempts to kick the habit, and after not writing anything for 13 years, he succeeded on the third try after convincing his caregivers to let him use his computer and discovering to his delight that “I was still a writer”. “The most terrible thing about being a writer is not to write but to not write,” he said.
Enquist was cited by fellow Swedish writer, Henning Mankell, in Mankell’s final diary entry before he died. “Eventually, of course, the day comes when we all have to go,” wrote Mankell. “Then we need to remember the words of the author Per Olov Enquist: ‘One day we shall die. But all the other days we shall be alive.’”
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