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The Swedish

John Cowper Powys Society

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John Cowper Powys
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Newsletter no 10

Sven Erik Täckmark

by Gunnar Lundin


Sven Erik died at the age of ninety-one at the end of September after a brief illness. It was as though he received a couple of years’ bonus at the residential home Katarinagården; he regained his strength, despite in one sense having had his fill of life, or possibly preparing for a new journey. I have seldom – never? – met anyone with such spontaneous gratitude for being given the chance to devote himself to literature and philosophy. His childhood as an ugly duckling in a proletarian setting, coupled with benevolent genes, was his teachers. Reading and study became s sort of exercise in friendship. He had, in one sense, a »tragic» life, both his wife and his eldest daughter took their own lives, for reasons he was unable to affect, but his stoical spirit and openness to the wider world always revived.

Which is more important: to have a kind heart or to be able to convey a kind heart? For a writer indubitably the latter. Sven Erik’s articles in the periodical Metamorfos, in Svenskt biografiskt lexikon and in letters merged into a corpus which exuded the naive warmth familiar to us from meetings; and not only for those of us with the right »personal chemistry», for he was capable of selectively missionising.

Art and literature is the arena for candour. But candour can be everything from malicious to well-meaning revelation. Sven Erik’s was altogether devoid of malice, there was nothing insinuating about it. Meetings at Eva’s antiquarian bookshop in Ringvägen or at home in Åsögatan became a mixture of the Pickwick Club and an adult education seminar.

He grew up in surroundings where lack of education had coarsened into myopic conflict and where the value of education was never examined. It represented a well of rich mineral water which, as the map of his life appears to indicate, within a few moments, regained its rejuvenating freshness.

In 1930, an era when working class children left school at the age of fourteen, his mother realised that her son was gifted and approached prosperous private individuals and begged, in vain, for help to further his studies. The boy’s maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother had incidentally been a »witch» in the enlightened time of the assassinated Gustaf III and his killer Anckarström, a heredity which manifested itself in her descendent who in time became an atheist. His height of only 150 cm in stockinged feet, he attributed to inadequate nutrition. The lad rented a room in town and for the next couple of years supported himself as a barber’s assistant, a baker’s apprentice, an errand boy. In 1932, a year of mass unemployment with endless freezing queues outside the labour exchange, a friendly soul advised him to seek Pastor J-W Johnson, may he rest in peace, at the Stockholm Mission, who not only gave the lad a gift of one hundred crowns but also arranged a bed for him at Birkagården’s youth hostel for unemployed young men. Among some forty newly acquired friends, Sven Erik learnt his first words of English and German, after which he enrolled at Birkagården’s Educational Centre and attended lectures by Ebba Pauli, Nathanael Beskow and Emilia Fogelklou; and this is where his »insatiable hunger for books» was awakened.

By now he was seventeen and spent two years at Fornby Folk High-School, after which he got a job as apprentice journalist at Avesta Tidning. Here he came across Alf Ahberg’s translation of John Cowper Powys’ The Meaning of Culture, for him an amazing event, the birth of a philosophy of life and a fellow feeling which lasted for 70 years. All that was needed was a recommendation for broadened horizons from his new friend Rune Lindström, for Sven Erik to pack his bags for England. After a period as an au pair he embarks on a pilgrimage to Powys in Wales. He is now twenty two. The then sixty-year old author paints a portrait in his diary of the young man who charmed the whole village of Corwen and read Gustaf Fröding’s poem Clown Klopopisky in English. When I asked Sven Erik later what had meant most to him, reading Powys works or meeting him, he replied after some hesitation that it was reading the works –  for he was subsequently able to repeat the meeting at intervals

It is, however, impossible to imagine this impractical man as a child-minder, cook, washer-upper or as a  cleaner. No English family would ever have been the same again.

Then he was back in Stockholm as a night porter, subscription collector for Newspaper for the Blind, sewing machine agent, bicycle errand boy. Once more a crucial street encounter occurred; as Sven Erik stomped up Kungsgatan on his short legs he recognized Sven F. Lunner from Fornby Folk High School, who offered him work as office caretaker in the civil defence organization, where he remained until 1943. After this he was admitted to the School of Social Studies, graduated in 1946 and married Inga Belfrage, teacher of French with an aristocratic background. (When he awoke in his Japanese room each morning near his end, the first thing he saw was an oil painting of his wife.) This was followed by studies at Stockholm

University in English, Political Science and History of Literature. He was admitted without having matriculated, after having been examined in Latin, which left traces of a collection of quotations often connected with fate, like prizes in a tombola in a Swedish amusement park; two favourites were »mirabile dictu» and, following a satirical interjection, »nomina sunt odiosa». In 1955 he gained his Bachelor’s degree.

He returned to Fornby as a teacher, which was followed by other teaching appointments, interrupted for a time by editorship of the Immigration Ministry’s newspaper, biographical articles for Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, and then in the 1980s opening an antiquarian bookshop in Ringvägen together with his elder daughter. If any designation were to be chosen for Sven Erik it would in the end have to be translator, after forty books. He missed by only a few months the launch of his and Mikael Nydahl’s translation of Powys’ Autobiography.

One could devise a number of different ways to handle a difficult childhood. One would be like Strindberg’s and Lars Norén’s, to challenge and subject it to forensic scrutiny. Another one is to concentrate on what it was that enabled the individual concerned to surmount it and find new relationships and contexts. Sven Erik, with his benevolent genes, chose the latter path.

The essence of his development was far from encyclopaedic or even literary; it was contained in a phial. It granted him a perspective on life which enabled him to endure its tragic incidents. It entailed seeing oneself, as Voltaire did, as a statistical number, but a number gifted with insight into the fluctuations of fate, whose credit account is ultimately always available. The fact that his very wide reading never became ponderous was undoubtedly

due to Powys’s practical attitude. Metaphysics never grew into a longing for the hereafter, but was always a philosopher’s stone located in the here and now. During his final period at Katarinagården, Melville’s Moby Dick lay on his bedside table. A visitor might find him slumbering on top of the bed, and as soon as he opened his eyes he was swiftly focused in an unhurried conversation, a pre-industrial conversation, predating TV and radio. He resembled a sailor who has been up in the mast on the lookout for whales, after which the luncheon-mackerel tasted better. It was the vista, it was language, it was psychology which activated his gratitude, despite pains in his left side after his stroke, gratitude to live another day.

Nils Leijer who was a student at the folk high school, spoke of how unwilling Monday-morning students, still with the taste of cocoa in their mouths  and autumn chill in their hair, slumped in their seats, and how Sven Erik within ten minutes had transported them into Bellman’s world and fired them to see something desirable and full of possibilities in the mundanest of life. He belonged to those who can speak to us directly –and was less concerned to gain trophies for his own oeuvres or literary successes, but more concerned to arouse hearts and shining eyes. His own experience of Powys’s The Meaning of Culture had lit a spark which never died out; vexations and difficulties were perhaps the »dry» climate in which it flourished best.

Beskrivning: Omslagsbild bak hösten 2007

Sven Erik Täckmark 1916-2007



This page updated 4 April 2012.