On Death, Loss, and Grief

One of three Scandinavian countries, Sweden is the largest country in northern Europe and the fifth largest in all of Europe. With its idyllic landscape, it is a popular destination for thrill-seekers. It is also known for being the home of the Swedish Academy which annually recognizes great contributions to humanity in a plethora of fields, from economics to physics to chemistry. The most prominent, of course, is the Nobel Peace Prize, often considered one of the highest achievements there is. The Academy also recognizes the importance of literature, hence, the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the most prominent and influential writers across the world such as United States’ Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner; Japan’s Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburō Ōe; South Africa’s J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer; and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa.

Sweden does not run short of impressive writers who have captivated the world over. Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy has become popular with fans of crime fiction. Interestingly, these books were published posthumously. Jonas Jonasson’s and Fredrik Backman’s works are also ubiquitous. Their brand of humor has been gathering steam. Sweden has also produced eight Nobel Laureates in Literature, including two of the rarities in the roll of award winners: female writers in Nelly Sachs (1951) and Selma Lagerlöf (1909). The latter was the first woman to win the award. Other Swedish winners include poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931), novelist Eyvind Johnson (1974), and poet and translator Tomas Tranströmer (2011).

Another renowned Swedish writer who rose to global acclaim was Göran Tunström whose literary talents were already palpable when he was younger. He published his first major work, Inringnin, a collection of poems, when he was 21 years old. Shortly after, he published his first novel. However, it was his 1983 novel, Juloratoriet, that elevated him to global recognition. Translated into English as The Christmas Oratorio, the novel charted the destinies of three generations of the Nordenssons, a Swedish family living on a farm in Värmland, a county adjacent to Sunne, the locality where Tunström grew up. The story introduced Aron, the patriarch. He is a farmer who was married to Solveig. The couple had a son and a daughter: Sidner and Eva-Liisa.

“But music’s gate did not rust shut. On the keyboard’s secret paths, he wormed through the jungle of demands and shortcomings. With bowed head, with half-closed eyes, he took himself to the crest where the roads lie open. Then he cast his face backwards, opened his eyes, and smiled: he was through the gate. Inaccessible and alone out in the music, if on a great sheet of ice where the sun releases drops of gold. Telephones could ring around that ice. And they would.”

~ Göran Tunström, The Christmas Oratorio

The story kickstarted in the 1930s when the Nordensson family was struck by catastrophe. Solveig was a member of the local church’s choir. One day in June, Solveig was on her way to Sunne from their home. She was to meet Mr. Jancke, the local choirmaster to discuss the autumn’s concert. It has taken a decade for the concert to finally materialize. The musical piece at the center of the performance was the titular Christmas Oratorio, an oratorio composed by renowned German musician Johann Sebastian Bach. She hasn’t gone a long way when she met a freak accident. While trying to avoid a herd of stampeding cows, she fell off her bicycle, newly purchased by Aron. She was crushed to death by the herd of cows. Sidner witnessed the chain of events as they unfolded. He was just twelve years old at that time.

Solveig’s untimely demise left a deep scar on the remaining family members. They were all devastated by her sudden death. The novel then charted how each of the remaining members coped with grief. While bereaved family members would normally try to find comfort in each other, the same cannot be said of the Nordenssons. Rather, we see how the male members of the Nordensson family retreat to the depths of their psyche. They slowly detached themselves from the reality before them. We read of them undergoing the first stage of grief. He sold the farm after failing to keep it running; he received ample help from his neighbors but he was too overcome by grief. He moved his family to Sunne, hoping for a fresh start. This move proved to be critical in the life changes that will develop over time. Despite the change, it was clear that Aron was unable to recover from his grief. The ghost of his departed wife haunted him everywhere he went.

Family dynamics in the throes of grief were the primary theme of the novel. Different forms of coping mechanisms were portrayed in the story. These inevitably resulted in the formation of different forms of relationships that abounded throughout the novel. Aron’s grief strained his relationship with his children, especially with Sidner, thus, causing them to find comfort in other people. Sidner found his reprieve in his friend Splendid. Their friendship blossomed until Splendid had to move again. Aron, on the other hand, established a long-distance correspondence with Tessa, a young woman living on a farm in New Zealand. Aron was convinced that Tessa was the reincarnation of his wife. As their correspondence grew deeper, Aron traveled half the world to see Tessa, but to grave consequences. He never reached his destination, leaving a gaping hole in Tessa’s heart.

Sidner, meanwhile, grew up to be a sentimental and introverted adolescent. When he was barely twenty, he found himself romantically entangled with a much older woman. Their relationship would bore a son, Victor. However, Sidner later learned that the woman he loved does not love him back. She also kept their son away from him. The rejection left a deep scar on Sidner. Feeling dejected and thinking no woman wanted him, he felt unloved. It didn’t take time for him to go free-falling. This would eventually land him in a hospital for the mentally ill. Mental health, mental illnesses, and general madness were recurring themes in the story. For instance, there was also a madman who fascinated Splendid and Sidner. He was driven mad by his religious devoutness.

“How seldom do we have time to listen to the delicate things! Or more correctly expressed: how seldom is the ability given to us. Therefore, the one who has been given that, if even in short moments, must be attentive, as if one were in love, and describe the Obvious: that the anthills have opened for the season, that the lark is here.”

~ Göran Tunström, The Christmas Oratorio

Suicide and thoughts of it added a layer of complexity to the story. There was also a prevalence of estrangement between parents and children, not just in the case of Aron and Sidner. Victor grew up bereft of a fatherly figure. He was raised by his mother who made him believe that his father did not want to get involved with him. His mother was also domineering and ambitious and, as such, wanted his son to be as ambitious as her. When she saw he had a talent for painting, she was filled with visions of grandeur. She coaxed her son into pursuing this career path as she wanted him to be a famous painter in the future. It was not his However, his mother’s assertiveness only created a chasm between mother and son. The tumultuous relationship between Victor and his mother was yet again a demonstration of the familial discord that permeated the story.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was meant to be played during Christmas, a time of celebrations and merriment. However, there was very little to celebrate in the story of the Nordensson family. Heartbreaks were everywhere. Rejections were recurring themes. Everyone was unhappy and miserable. Every character has struggles they must overcome. There were also details of domestic abuse, secrets, isolation, and even erotic dreams. There was a bleakness that hovered above the story and Tunström gave very little reprieve. There was detachment. There were separations between parents and children. Further underlining this theme of separation was the story of Solveig’s brother, Torin, another socially awkward man who believed he fathered an illegitimate child. He was devastated when the child’s mother refused to have him see the child who he then kidnapped.

The death of Solveig, unfortunately, set into motion a chain of tragedies that would permeate for years. These would also adversely affect the lives of those who she left behind. For years, they were haunted by different ghosts, some imagined, some hallucinatory visions. We do accept the reality that people come and go in our lives. However, it is still a hard pill to swallow. It does take time to heal and we see how Aron and Sidner go through every stage of grief. The passage of time may help heal the superficial wounds, those that manifest on the outside. But not even the passage of time can help heal the gaping holes in the heart left behind by those who have passed away, the wounds that we obscure from the view of others. These were vividly captured by Tunström.

For all the bleakness that loomed above the story, bright spots, albeit few and far in between, provided breathers from the suffocating veil of misery the story was wrapped in. Sidner inherited his mother’s passion for music but, ironically for a novel that derived its title from a renowned musical piece, it was bereft of musical references. One of these references, however, does come at a seminal moment in the story. The novel was bookended by an adult Victor traveling back to the city where his father grew up. In the first chapter, we learn that he was already an accomplished musician conductor and that he visited the city to be the conductor for the local church’s production of Christmas Oratorio. In a way, it was the story’s coming of full circle, although in reverse.

“I know those screams. You do, too. We live from scream to scream. But in between a rivulet of water makes its way. It disappears, it reappears, once, twice, perhaps three times during our lives, so we can moisten our lips and go on. That I was here depended upon my being shown those gleams between the stones in the valley of the dead. I have been allowed to hear music where I least of all expected it.”

~ Göran Tunström, The Christmas Oratorio

Albeit bleak at nearly every corner, Tunström did a commendable job of exploring the human psyche in the throes of death and rejection and on the cusp of derangement. The complexities of human perception and the depths of the human spirit were vividly captured by the story. It was relentless in its exploration of the human spirit and its desolation. There was a preoccupation with bleakness and it sucks the readers right in. It does seem like the novel was confirming the perception of the cheerlessness of Swedes. The story, at times, gets quite disorderly but the chaos was aptly handled by the quality of Tunström’s writing. There was a lyricism that made the words flow diaphanously.

The legacy of death lies at the heart of Goran Göran Tunström’s most renowned novel. There is a domino effect of one death that unraveled the surviving members of a family. More tragedies ensued as a result. There was very little reprieve and there was no escape from the tight grasp of grief. Death leaves too much pain that those who are unable to endure start losing their sense of self. Still, there is healing and a coming of full circle. Finely woven together by Tunström’s adept hands into a lush tapestry, it was a surprise to learn that The Christmas Oratorio earned Tunström several accolades in his native Sweden, such as the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1984.

“The strength death created had thrown me here, in among the trees. I had expected life would be somewhere else. That it was aquestion of searching it out, following my family’s custom. Now, so long afterward, I am often gripped by vertigo over how random those steps were that led us correctly, that led me forward. But it is the same sort of vertigo that reaches me every star-clear night when I go out into the darkness and look up, feeling how the earth moves in its immese universe, and I know I must cling firmly to the ground yet a while longer. And let the musc that gives us hope ring out.”

~ Göran Tunström, The Christmas Oratorio
Rating

64%

Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 
17%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

It was in mid-2020 that I first came across Swedish writer Göran Tunström and his novel The Christmas Oratorio. I encountered it through a bookseller I’ve come to patronize during the pandemic. I was unfamiliar with the writer but the book immediately piqued my interest. When my research yielded that the book was listed as one of 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I bought it without more ado and sans any iota on what it was about. Despite this, I added the book to my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. I am glad that before the year wraps up I finally get to read it. The premise was interesting and the novel’s first chapter piqued my interest. What ensued was a story of tragedy and upon which more tragedies followed. I read of how the male members of the Nordensson family struggled to cope with the loss of Solveig. What was missing, however, was Eva-Liisa’s perspective. I also feel like the women were the more interesting characters. It was lamentable that the book’s focus was on the male characters.

It was, nevertheless, an interesting reading experience. However, it can be too bleak that the reader loses hope. It was no light read but it gave me a different dimension of Swedish literature, a step away from the more humorous works of Fredrik Backman and Jonas Jonasson.

Book Specs

Author: Göran Tunström
Translator: Paul Hoover
Publisher: David R. Godine, Publisher Inc.
Publishing Date: 1995
Number of Pages: 347
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

The Christmas Oratorio is a grand fresco of human striving, ambition, and desire by Sweden’s foremost contemporary novelist. Centering on three generations of Nodensson men, it unravels a saga as elaborately structured as a Bach cantata and as emotionally complex as a Bergman film.

The Christmas Oratorio begins in the 1930s, when Solveig Nordensson (wife of Aron and mother of Sidner) is accidentally killed. The grieving family abandons its home and moves to another town, hoping to start afresh, but finds that its emotional burdens have emigrated with it. Aron, bereft by the loss of his wife, starts “seeing” her in capricious hallucinations, and tragically seeks her reincarnation in a love-starved woman half a world away. The introverted Sidner begins a quest for emotional maturity that leads him into odd friendships with a remarkably self-reliant street boy and a free-spirited older woman. And grandson Victor, heir to the tortured legacy left by Solveig’s death, finds redemption for himself in a staging of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – a performance begun by Solveig half a century earlier and interrupted by her tragic death.

More than a generational saga, however, The Christmas Oratorio is one of those rare works that encompasses the entirety of human drama, in terms at once touching, comic, erotic, and surreal. This is a novel of phenomenal breadth and insight, and a stunning debut in English, by one of the most celebrated authors in Scandinavia today.

About the Author

Göran Tunström was born on May 14, 1937, in  Karlstad, Sweden but grew up in Sunne, Värmland County. His father, a Protestant minister, passed away when he was 12; his death would figure prominently in his works. In 1957 Tunström graduated from a high school in Uppsala.

A year after graduating from high school, Tunström published his first major work, Inringnin, a collection of poems. He was 21 years old. In 1960, his first novel, Karantän, was published but it was in his second novel, Maskrosbollen, that he made a bigger breakthrough. His other novels include Familjeliv (1964), Hallonfallet (1967), and Ökenbrevet (The Letter from the Wilderness, 1978). However, it was with his 1983 novel Juloratoriet that he earned global recognition. Translated into English as The Christmas Oratorio, it won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1984. It was also adapted into a film in 1996. Berömda män som varit i Sunne (1998) was the last novel he published during his lifetime. It won the August Prize. Försök med ett århundrade was published posthumously in 2002. It was from an unfinished manuscript he started working on in 1996.

Apart from being a distinguished novelist, Tunström is a renowned poet. Over his prolific career, he published ten poetry collections such as Två vindar (1960), De andra de till hälften synliga (1966), and Sorgesånger (1980). He has also published short stories, plays, and travelogues. Tunström has also won several literary awards such as the Svenska Dagbladet’s Literature Prize in 1976, Selma Lagerlöf Prize in 1987, the Nils Ferlin Prize in 1998, and the Tegnér Prize in 1999. In 2021 Birgitta Holm wrote a biography of Tunström titled Vår ljusaste tragiker: Göran Tunströms textvärld.

Tunström passed away on February 5, 2000, in his home in Stockholm.