In this country of traditions, which has captured my heart and caused me to set down roots as deep as a modern human can have (family with children, house, bank accounts, taxes, habits of behavior and mind), there is a tradition that is quite modern, as recent as radio.
“Summertalkers” is not a beautiful word, and yet its Swedish origin, “Sommarpratarna,” is somehow beautiful. Partly it is the association: to experience the Summertalkers program, one sits lazily by the radio, and listens to a gifted writer (or actor or musician …) speak about life. Occasionally, the Summertalkers play a piece of music to illustrate what they are talking about. Usually the talk is by turns deep, by turns amusing, or perhaps — if the person is quite famous — interesting only in that it reveals something quite personal about them.
As I write this, I am listening to one of most satisfying “Summer Talks” I’ve caught over the years, by author Torgny Lindgren. His 72-year-old voice hesitates in charming ways as he talks about writing and music and how these bring meaning to even the most tragic of lives — say, Joseph Roth, who drank himself to death in the cafes of Paris but wrote compellingly, humorously, and in full command of style, until the very last alcoholic drop.
Torgny (these talks are so intimate in tone that they make one feel compelled use the first name) made me laugh as he recounted the turning point in his young life, the moment when literature gripped him. He was sitting in the outhouse of his family home in northern Sweden, “leaning forward, probably pushing.” The few lines of Swedish poetry that he happened upon in a social-democratic consumer cooperative magazine do not translate well, or at least, I can’t recall them well enough to do them justice in translation. But there he was, a writer-to-be, seized by the language that gives us meaning, having a moment of youthful literary euphoria, in the middle of doing his business in the outhouse.
The beautiful absurdity of it says something about Torgny’s character, his lack of self-pretension (though he sits in chair #9 in the Swedish Academy). But it also says something about summer in Sweden. It is absurdly beautiful here, just now. Everything is wonderful, in the midst of these endless sunny days of leisure, even the most clichéd old song, even American soda pop, even a decaying mini-golf course. One laughs at oneself for enjoying such things — Torgny began by noting that our capacity to fool ourselves about how important, or smart, or beautiful we are is probably one of our most important success factors as a species — but one enjoys it all nonetheless.
“Let’s be honest, music leads us nowhere. Music is completely useless. Ask the tax authorities!” says Torgny. “But we all have a drive to music, a ‘music libido,’ that is as strong as any other drive we have,” he notes, remarking on the remarkable fact that people go around plugged into devices to satisfy their constant, endless need for music. “If Sigmund Freud had discovered the music drive, then all of his work would have looked completely different.”
And the talk goes on, and on. Torgny is playing with words, adding the “muse drive” to the “music drive” — a drive to creativity. We simply must create, just as the Earth — and this is impossible not to believe, during these long summer blooming day-nights in Sweden — must create.
What else, in this endless universe, is there for us to do?