Reading Richard Vowles’ essay on Karin Boye and Kallocain in Prometheus was fascinating—a very knowledgeable text, yet one which for reasons possibly having to do with the fact that in 1965 such things were not mentioned manages to give a both distorted and incomprehensible view of both Boye and much of her work.
Karin Boye, who lived during a time when homosexuality was still both taboo and criminal in Sweden as elsewhere, was a lesbian. In Sweden, she initially never dared speak openly of her feelings, and indeed during her active period in the socialist Clarté organisation went so far as to marry another Clarté member, Leif Björk; this is noted by Vowles, who says that this “early, unsuccessful marriage...was the first of several emotional defeats that finally led Karin Boye to seek psychiatric help in Berlin.” Boye was married to Björk in 1929, the year she became 29; hardly a particularly early marriage. She went to Berlin, which before the ascent of Hitler was viewed as the most tolerant, hedonistic and liberal city in Europe to seek help, certainly, but also liberation, and found it; it was during her year in Berlin (1932—1933) that she both sued for divorce and began living with Margot Hanel, whom she met and seduced (Boye’s own word) in Berlin and who after her return home joined her in Sweden where they lived together until Boye’s death. Even so, Boye could not embrace happiness: her great love from their meeting at a Christian summer camp in 1918 and until her death was Anita Nathorst, but although they became close friends, Nathorst, devoutly religious and with a degree in theology, could never allow herself to be her lover; she was headmistress of a girl’s school and lived alone. At the time of Boye’s death, she had left her home and partner to travel to the town of Alingsås, where Anita Nathorst was dying from cancer. Boye spent time with her, then on April 23 committed suicided. Her partner Margot Hanel killed herself the following month. Anita Nathorst succumbed to cancer in August.
When Vowles writes, “the poet trapped in a prosaic marriage, unable to realize himself in poetry or in love...undoubtedly...come close to the problems of Boye’s own life,” he is certainly quite correct. But his refusal to discuss the real issues tearing Boye apart makes her incomprehensible. In fact, she was tragically just one more victim of religious and social intolerance enacted in law.
Editor: Although Vowles introduction stands unchanged in the 2002 University of Wisconsin edition of Kallocain, a more detailed biographical essay by David McDuff can be found at http://www.halldor.demon.co.uk/boyepage.htm, along with several of her poems, translated by McDuff. Boye’s later life reads like a tragedy, and McDuff details far more of Boye’s sexuality and how this played a role in her suicide.
All trademarks and copyrights property of their owners.