A short introduction to Swedish literature

It is said that the best way to get to know a country is to read its literature. Actually, that is not a saying yet, but it should be one! Because what can be more informative than what a nation’s finest have put in print? When asked what Swedish books they know, many people will probably only come up with the Millenium trilogy by Stieg Larsson. Hopefully, after finishing this article, you will be convinced that Swedish literature is so much more than just dark crime novels. Without further ado, here is a short introduction to Swedish literature.

Old School/Classics:

Have  you ever heard someone say: “ultimately, it’s all about the money..”? August Strindberg, who is most famous for his plays, felt the same way back in 1879. His book The Red Room has been called the first modern Swedish novel. Protagonist Arvid Falk, young and idealistic, quits his comfortable government job, because he is disappointed with bureaucracy. In pursuit of a more rewarding job, he traverses the Stockholm circles of politics, publishing, theatre and business, only to find more hypocrisy and corruption. The harsh but not mean depiction of Swedish society, the portrayal of Stockholm in the 1880s and the witty descriptions certainly make for an enjoyable read.

Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941) was a writer, journalist and translator. His 1905 book Doctor Glass was deemed very provocative when it came out, and it is not hard to understand why. When a young woman asks for help with her problematic marriage, doctor Glass sees himself confronted with a moral dilemma. Dealing with solitude and love, abortion and religion, the rights and duties of medical doctors, Doctor Glass’ razor-sharp observations and thoughts jotted down in his diary spare nothing and no one, especially not himself.

Writer Per Anders Fogelström spent his whole life in Stockholm; no wonder that his hometown provides the backdrop for his City series. The five books in the series describe the lives of Stockholm’s inhabitants from 1860 to 1968, and are the perfect reading material for those interested in a historical view of living in Stockholm.

Not only for Children:

Originally written as a geography reader for public schools, Selma Lagerlöf’s The Adventures of Nils Holgersson from 1906-07 has survived the passage of time  surprisingly well. The description of Swedish landscapes, flora and fauna has been interlaced with all the charming little (ha!) adventures Nils experiences during his trip on the back of goose Mårten. Can you imagine being taught geography by reading a book like this? As the book is literally packed with information, don’t hesitate to grab a map of Sweden to follow Nils’ course through Sweden. In addition to this masterpiece, Selma Lagerlöf also wrote books for adults and was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909.

In the 1990s, Annika Thor, an author and screenwriter from Gothenburg, wrote a series of books about Jewish children fleeing the Holocaust as refugees and ending up on an island near Gothenburg. The series has been recently translated into English, encompassing the books Faraway Island, Lily Pond, Deep Sea and Open Sea. Although the story takes place during WWII, there are still many parallels with the current world situation. Besides, the series also deals with the questions familiar to all when coming of age and beyond: who am I and where is home?

Pippi Longstocking, Karlsson on the Roof, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, The Brothers Lionheart – it is difficult to choose between all the books that Astrid Lindgren wrote: so many of them have become classics, and not without reason. Astrid Lindgren always took children seriously and made them the main characters in her books. Without exception, they are strong-willed and bold, but also honest and brave. Recently, the biography of Astrid Lindgren written by Jens Andersen revealed she was a whole lot like her book characters.

*Tip* Visit the children’s cultural centre Junibacken, in the house were Astrid Lindgren was born, on Djurgården to experience the world of Swedish children’s books.

Photo: Juan, Flickr


The late Marianne Fredriksson started her career working in journalism. Undergoing psychotherapy sessions to recover from a depression, she was asked to write up a dream and realised she had a gift for writing fiction as well. Her book Simon and the Oaks follows the life of two families, their friendship and their entangled fate in Gothenburg during and after WWII.

Movie adaptation: Simon and the Oaks (2011).

If You’re into Something Darker:

Henning Mankell, who passed away in 2015, was most known for his Wallander series, about a somber, middle-aged inspector named Kurt Wallander who tries to solve murders in the open landscapes of Skane. If you think that he does not sound like the most relatable book character, you are probably right. Still, the Wallander series, called “novels about the Swedish unrest” by Mankell himself, has gotten many (international) fans: in Ystad, where the detective lives, you can take a Wallander guided tour and pass by his favorite café to have a fika. As a social critic and activist, Mankell highlighted many social issues in the Wallander series and his other books and plays. Perhaps the realism and honesty in the books keep you hooked: start with the first book of the series Faceless Killers and see for yourself. The books have also been adapted into a Swedish and a British TV series.

Prolonging Your Life with Laughter:

Ove, the leading character in A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, dislikes a lot of things. The dog that pees in his garden. The neighbour who lets him. People who don’t know how to drive properly. That one flower bouquet does not cost half of the special offer for two bouquets. He also dislikes living his life, and plans to end it. But things usually don’t turn out as planned… The book is funny and touching at the same time, dealing with love and loss. You start to feel for Ove as his story is unravelled, although you did not mean to do so, just like Ove himself.

Movie adaptation: A Man Called Ove (2015)

Jonas Jonasson’s first novel The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared was a major success worldwide, selling over 3.5 million copies. Chances are that you have already read this book, but in case you have lived under a rock the past years, the hundred-year-old man, Allan Karlsson, decides to run away from his retirement home to escape his own birthday party. Anyone else thinking of The Lord of the Rings too? However, Allan does not run into trolls and Orks, but unintentionally gets in the way of drug dealers. It turns out Allan has a knack for getting involved in things seemingly much bigger than himself. Although the storyline is obviously outright outrageous, somehow it does not seem far-fetched when reading it.

Movie adaptation: The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared (2013)

It Is About Us All:

The novel I Call my Brothers by Jonas Hassen Khemiri grew out of a letter he published in Dagens Nyheter in the aftermath of the bomb attack in Drottninggatan in 2010. Main character Amor likes to put things in order – he calls the people he knows for the chemical elements they remind him of: his friend “Helium” makes everything seem light. This sense of order is destroyed when he realises that the description of the suspect could have been about him and many other young men as well. Although he always worked hard in school and tried to fit into the Swedish society, the terrorist attack heightens his feelings of still being perceived as ‘the other’. Especially after the terrorist attack of last April in Stockholm this book is a must-read for anyone, as it helps us to try to see the world through other people’s eyes – to share each other’s experiences.

Some Mystery to Activate Your Imagination:

It is the middle of the 1990s. Bea Uusma is bored at a party. She pulls out a book from the bookshelf and starts reading about the arctic balloon expedition on the North Pole in 1897 under leadership of Salomon August Andrée, which ended with the death of all three expedition members, their bodies only to be discovered thirty-three years later. Still, what actually happened to them remained a mystery: why did they die? Bea Uusma becomes fascinated, or actually obsessed, with the story and starts her personal investigation into what happened to them, resulting in the book The Expedition. Bea Uusma is not only a writer and former illustrator, she also studied medicine and works as a medical doctor. Her simple, straight language, combined with her medical knowledge and personal involvement, make for a fascinating read about what compels mankind to measure its power to nature. •

Happy reading!

Photo: Rob Prouse, Flickr
Written by: Joanne Bakker


This article was previously published in: Medicor 2017 #2
Proofread by: David Unger

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