Birgitta Trotzig was one of the leading authors of twentieth-century Swedish literature. She held seat number 6 within the Swedish Academy from 1993–2011.
Birgitta Trotzig was born in Gothenburg. She was the only child of Astri and Oscar Kjellén. She grew up in Kristianstad following her parents’ move to that town to take up jobs as teachers of French and English. Her childhood landscape of flat plains close to the sea came to characterise her written output. After completing her schooling Birgitta Trotzig began to read philosophy, literature, and art history at Göteborgs högskola (college). There she met Ulf Trotzig, an artist who was studying at the Valand school of art. They got married and moved to Paris shortly afterwards, living there until the 1970s. They then returned to Sweden and settled in Lund. By then Birgitta Trotzig was not only a mother of three daughters and a son but also an established writer.
She had made her literary debut in 1951 with the release of a collection of short stories, entitled Ur de älskandes liv, a triptych about the sorrow and longing for life and creativity experienced by young women. The book opens with a Kierkegaard quote, posing a question: “Hvad er det Æstetiske i et Menneske, og hvad er det Etiske?” (What are the aesthetics of man, and what are the ethics?) The relationship between aesthetics and ethics was a major theme in Birgitta Trotzig’s written work, emerging from the post-war nihilism by which her generation was characterised. Writing served as an outlet and a method of attaining a multifaceted existence by striving to both formally and thematically cross boundaries. Birgitta Trotzig, through her lyrical novels, stories, and prose poems thus intentionally looked for the outer limits of vulnerability and the trauma of existence in order to highlight what was nakedly human. Dostoyevsky, Nerval, and Hölderlin, along with Kafka, Celan and Nelly Sachs, figure amongst her kindred spirits, as well as Russian poetry, the Bible, and mystics from the Christian tradition. In 1955 Birgitta Trotzig converted to the Catholic faith and her notebook entitled Ett landskap. Dagbok – fragment 54-58 contains a condensed account of the reasons for her conversion.
During the second half of the 1950s Birgitta Trotzig's expression began to resemble historical tale-telling, using the rich symbolism of myths and fairytales. It was then that she began to make inroads with the reviewers, initially with her 1957 novel De utsatta, which was a legend-like dark story situated in northern Scania of the late 1600s. Her 1961 novel, En berättelse från kusten, vividly recounts life in medieval Åhus in a prose-lyrical portrayal of human suffering, crime, and reconciliation. Scania also provides the background for two of her major contemporary historical novels depicting the emergence of and drawbacks to the Swedish welfare state. Sjukdomen, published in 1972, tells of a father and his son, and the illness suffered by the latter. With inexorable precision Birgitta Trotzig describes the motherless son’s childhood in a puritanical stultifying system which cuts off his life options. His stunted experiences reveal an image of a world dominated by the ruination caused by the Second World War. Birgitta Trotzig’s 1985 book, Dykungens dotter, where the title and theme were lifted from H.C. Andersen’s eponymously titled story, proved to be her breakthrough with the general public. The reader follows the story of a woman from the time she leaves the countryside in order to begin working at a Kristianstad factory until her final days, alone, in a newly-built suburb on the outskirts of Malmö. The developments trace a single parent with a child who belong to the lowest social group, representing with piercing acuity the social and racist mechanisms of marginalisation that were part of the emergence of modern Sweden.
Birgitta Trotzig also produced shorter pieces of prose in between publishing her books. The 1964 Levande och döda: tre berättelser, Sveket: en berättelse, published in 1966, I kejsarens tid: sagor, from 1975, and in the 1977 Berättelser she examined, with linguistic conciseness, the fragile boundary between the ethical and unethical, between violence and love, as human conditions. Birgitta Trotzig’s final work, published in 1988, reveals its basic theme in the title: Dubbelheten: tre sagor.
Birgitta Trotzig was not just a great story-teller; she was also a prominent poet. Her basic written format was prose poetry, out of which she would develop her longer stories. In some of her early prose poems, such as the 1954 Bilder and the 1968 Ordgränser she fought against both the spoken and unspoken boundaries of expression. The lyrical fragments in Anima, published in 1982, took this a step further whilst the wide-ranging poetry-collection from 1996, Sammanhang – material, ties everything together, from the extreme of no language and confusion to the light of reconciliation.
Birgitta Trotzig was able to point out the destructive tendencies of modern society and its normalisation by the mass media through her markedly lyrical language. Her questioning of what was acceptable and ideologically predetermined also pervaded her reflections on her own writing and that of others which she expressed in critical submissions to Sydsvenskan, Dagens Nyheter, Aftonbladet, and Bonniers Litterära Magasin during the 1960s and 1970s. Her essay-writing, just like her contributions to contemporary debates on the condition of literary criticism, can be found collated in Utkast och förslag, published in 1962, Jaget och världen, from 1977, as well as her 1993 book Porträtt – Ur tidshistorien.
Birgitta Trotzig was the recipient of a great many literary prizes. She was also a member of the Samfundet De Nio from 1967 to 1993. In 1993 she was elected into the Swedish Academy. She died in Lund in 2011.