In the first of a three-part series about modern Sweden, I look at what twentieth and twenty-first century writers have to say, and how the reality of life in Sweden compares to the euphoria or opprobrium that it often provokes.
“I always thought Sweden sounded a dull country, much more so than Norway or Finland,” George Orwell once wrote to his friend Michael Meyer, a lecturer at the university of Uppsala. “I should think there would probably be very good fishing, if you can whack up any interest in that. But I have never been able to like these model countries with everything up-to-date and hygienic and an enormous suicide rate.”
“I came prepared to see through the familiar negative clichés about Sweden – and found many of them disconcertingly confirmed,” wrote Susan Sontag in the late 1960s. “To repress anger as extensively as people do here greatly exceeds the demands of justice and rational self-control; I find it little short of pathological.”
One of the great hatchet jobs of modern American letters, Sontag’s 16-page Letter from Sweden, published in the July 1969 issue of Ramparts magazine, spared few sections of Swedish society. Swedes were obsessively obedient of petty rules: “Old ladies glare at you when you cross an empty street against the light”. But when things go wrong “hardly anyone gets fired”: Sontag saw Swedes as so pathologically frightened of conflict that they turn a blind eye to incompetence and failure. Southern European immigrants told Sontag they found Swedes “unbearably cold, stiff and priggish”, and Sontag agreed.
Superficially, Sontag considered Sweden to be much like the US or West Germany – “six-lane highways, suburban shopping centres… refined and partly detoxified by the condition of advanced ‘welfare state enlightenment’”. But on closer examination she found Sweden full of meanness and pedantry. Swedes split restaurant and taxi bills to the last cent, were notoriously shifty about planning social engagements, and – worst of all – continually smoked Sontag’s cigarettes without returning the favour.