Filippa Rolf was a modern exponent of the so-called Lundaskolan within Swedish lyrical poetry of the 1950s. She also translated Vladimir Nakobov’s novels into Swedish.
Filippa Rolf was born in Stockholm in 1924. She was the daughter of Bruno Rolf, Sweden’s first national meteorologist, in his second marriage to the baroness Dagmar Rappe. Filippa lost her father at an early age. She gained her school-leaving certificate in Kalmar in 1943 and then continued her studies at Uppsala University, where she received a Bachelor’s degree in 1948. From 1952 to 1953 she trained to become a librarian in Stockholm, following in her paternal aunt Lisa Rolf’s footsteps. Lisa Rolf was a pioneering librarian who became the first town librarian of Lund in 1928. Filippa Rolf worked at libraries in Växjö and Kalmar. Toward the end of the 1950s she shared an apartment in Lund with the translator Estrid Tenggren.
Filippa Rolf made her poetry debut in Bonnier’s Lilla Lyrik series in 1957 with Till det synliga. This was followed by her poetry collections Ungdom, 1959, Omärkligt, 1960, and Dikter, 1963. She wrote the last collection when she was in the USA, after having moved there in 1961 in order to study literary history at Harvard University. Dikter, which starts with a few short pieces of prose, ends with a poem in English. The collection also includes two bilingual poems about the Nabokovs, which involve a Proust-inspired fantasy about being on a beach with the two exiled Russians.
In the autumn of 1963 Filippa Rolf unsuccessfully tried to have Dikter immediately withdrawn from publication “due to a moral principle which struck me too late”, as she wrote to her publisher Åke Runnquist. At her insistence he pulped the impending October edition. This is why there are only a very small number of copies of the book available today.
The restrained bittersweet and somewhat secretive aspect is a recurring theme in Filippa Rolf’s poetry, which she applies to people and books, as well as authors and their work. Vladimir and Véra Nabokov invited her to Nice in 1961 after she had helped them with advice on the poorly translated and heavily redacted Swedish versions of the novels Pnin and Lolita. As a way of thanking Filippa Rolf for her efforts, the Nabokovs helped her – in their eyes a brilliant young poet – to make her way to the USA, and she headed off in the autumn of 1961.
At the Institution for Comparative Literature at Harvard Filippa Rolf socialised with teachers and students. She met the philosopher Sissela Bok, who would write an essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, as well as the artist Lillian Habinowski. Filippa Rolf continued to write while she was in the USA and soon published English-language prose. “As It Is Written” is a linguistically balanced, melancholy novel about a boygirl’s childhood. The story contains traces of Filippa Rolf’s own family history in carefully described, imaginary surroundings. It tells the tale of a lost English/Swedish kingdom along the shores of the Trekanten (the Triangle lake in Stockholm), which somewhat mimics Nabokov’s literary worlds in Ada. Filippa Rolf gained Vladimir Nabokov’s trust for the translation of the novel Gåvan into Swedish in 1965. She even seems to have begun a translation of Pale Fire, but this was never completed.
Filippa Rolf earned her Master of Arts in 1964. She worked as a librarian at Mugar Memorial Library, at Boston University. She spent the summer of 1970 at the Yaddo artists’ colony. Her poem “Arrivals” in The American Swedish from 1972, tells of travels and arrivals; it is about settling in at a hotel in Paris, about visiting bombed-out Hamburg right after the Second World War in September 1945, about mountain climbing and flower gatheruing in the French Pyrenees. Swedish memoire authors like Folke Isaksson, Sigrid Kahle, Ulla and Göran Printz-Påhlsson visited Harvard and gave accounts of their meetings with Filippa Rolf.
During the 1970s Filippa Rolf was struck down by a cancer disease, which was discovered too late for any remedial treatment, and so she suffered an untimely death. She was only 54 when she died in the autumn of 1978 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is buried there.