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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

P(er) C(hristian) Jersild (1935-)


Swedish writer and medical doctor, who stirred much debate with his books on bureaucratic follies and absurdities of the welfare state. Jersild's best-known works include Babels hus (1978, House of Babel), a novel about inhuman treatment in a giant hospital near Stockholm. Many of his novels reflect the problems of the high technology nursing and medical research.

"Den finaste utmärkelse en läkare kan få är inte Nobelpriset - det är i stället att få en sjukdom uppkallad efter sig. Pristagare glöms ofta lika snabbt som den filmstjärna som dalade i fjol. Men praktiskt taget alla sjukdomar består. De inte bara består, de ökar. Ju fler människomiljarder som föds på jorden, ju fler sjukdomsmöjligheter. Läkarvetenskapen mäktar inte hålla takten när många miljoner nya människor varje år väller in i den ormgrop där över 7 000 olika WHO-registrerade och numrerade sjukdomar väntar." (from Djurdoktorn, 1973)

Per Christian Jersild was born in Katrineholm, but grew up in Ängby, a middle-class suburb of Stockholm. He was the youngest of three children. His father was an editor and a pastor of Helgelseförbundet (the Sanctification Union); Jersild himself abandoned Christian faith as a young teen. Jersild's mother had given up her literary aspirations. She never settled happily in the role of a housewife and mother.

At the age of 15, Jersild wrote his first novel. After attending a course in creative writing, conducted by the poet and critic Reidar Ekner, he became convinced that his true calling was that of a writer. Jersild entered in 1955 the Karolinska Institute, receiving in 1962 his Licentiate degree. In 1960 he married Ulla Flyxe; they had two sons. While still a medical student, Jersild published two books. As a short story writer he debuted with Räknelära (Algebra), which came out in 1960. Till varmare länder  (1961) told of a housewife named Barbro who starts to receive letters from her old friends and her visions of warmer climates turn out to be hell. Later the novel was made into an opera under the title Resan, composed by Lars Johan Werle. The libretto was written by Lars Runsten.  

In his studies Jersild specialized in social medicine and psychiatry. From 1963 to 1966 he was a staff member of the Institute of Social Medicine in Stockholm. He then worked at the Stockholm Civil Service Welfare Department and from 1974 to 1978 as a social psychiatrist at the Huddinge Hospital. He has also been an assistant professor of social and preventive medicine and a medical adviser to the National Government Administration Board. These experiences gave the author insight into the world of bureaucratic institutions, which he later satirized in his books. From 1977 Jersild devoted himself entirely to writing. He has received several literature prizes, including Swedish Society for Promotion of Literature grand prize in 1981 and De Nio prize in 1998. Jersild's columns have been published in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

Wider attention Jersild gained in 1967 with his television play Sammanträde pågor, about man's vulnerability in an impersonal bureaucratic society. Jersild's novel Grisjakten (The Pig Hunt) was adapted into screen in 1970. The story focused on a respectable government official, Lennart Siljeberg, who is given the assignment of killing all the pigs in Sweden, starting with the island of Gotland. Through Lennart's diary the reader follows the consequences of duty-bound obedience, which leads thoughts to the case of Adolf Eichmann. Lennart do not question his orders. His bureaucratic jargon Jersild mixes with authentic documents. One of the Jersid's models was Rudolf Höss diary, who was the commandant of Auschwitz and was tried and convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials and executed.

After realistic social stories Jersild started to developed his work into a more fantastic direction. The stylistic innovations of James Joyce were for him a crucial source of inspiration. Ledig lördag (1963) tells about a company party, where two of the participants are trapped for a week in a subway train on their nightmarish way back home. The story presents one of Jersildt's favorite themes: something absurd happens on an ordinary day and changes everything upside-down. Prince Valiant och Konsum (1966) is about a girl's dreams of a comic-book hero in the monotony of a Swedish grocery store.

In 1965 Jersild published Calvinols resa genom världen, a combination of Voltaire and Italo Calvono's fables, where Calvino's mythical, immortal figure witnesses the turning points of European history. The burlesque novel was described by the author as "an ecstatic writing experience." Djurdoktorn (1973), set in 1988-89, demonstrated how humanitarian concerns are nullified in a society where big business and social democracy have united. The protagonist, a vetenarian named Evy Beck, unsuccesfully protest a purposeless experiment with animals at the Alfred Nobel Institute for Medical Research. Man's struggle with the structures of society are dealt in Vi ses i Song My (1970), in which the protagonist believes he can change the Swedish military bureaucracy but is instead manipulated by it, and Stumpen (1973), about an alcoholic bum who thinks he is worthless and should be eliminated by society. Jersild wrote the book originally for the radical magazine FIB/Kulturfront. Vi ses i Song My and Uppror bland marsvinen (1972) were published by the leftist publishing company FörfattarFörlaget. As a 'humanist socialist' Jersild has often criticized the big business. In House of Babel his target is the pharmaceutical giants. Primus Svensson, and elderly man, who suffers arteriosclerosis, is swallowed by a large hospital, suffers a heart attack and eventually dies. Through his fate and in the microcosm of a hospital, Jersild shows the whole picture of loneliness and isolation in modern Sweden.

Jersild's novels En levande själ (1980, A Living Soul), told in first person by a disembodied human brain, the "living soul" of the title, and Efter floden (1982), set 30 years after a nuclear catastrophe, are science fiction stories, dystopians of future society. Efter floden (Eng. tr. After the Flood, 1986) depicts the world after nuclear holocaust. In A Living Soul the protagonist is a human brain, known as Ypsilon, without memories. Is it a human being? Is it only a laboratory project? In Holgerssons (1991) the author made fun of an icon of Swedish's children's literature, Selma Lagerlöf, taking Nils Holgersson from The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and describing his adventures in more recent Sweden. Barnens ö (1976) was about a young boy, Reine, who do not want to grow up and especially to go to summer camp. He searches in Stockholm meaning of life. Violence baffles him, the Vietnam war, costs of living. "And another thing: he had learned at school that people really see the world upside down; that was how their eyes functioned. But very early on in life you learned to turn the picture right side up in your head. It sounded a bit odd, but it was true. Reine didn't want to have anything to do with that kind of trick; he wanted to see the world as it really was, just as you'd seen it from the start when you were born, upside down."

Den femtionden frälsaren (1984) is a historical novel, set in the 18th-century Venice. The narrator, young Ciacco, is a clerk, who meets people from different levels of society. The central character is, however, the strange Magdalenus, a time traveler, who sees a vision of the future. He describes submarines, lifts, and modern toilets. Magdalenus claims, that he is a direct descendant of Jesus. Sena sagor (1998) was set in the near future. In the playful story a doctor meets representatives of our own time.

For further reading: Maktens verktyg by Inge Johnsson (1978); Swedish Book Review (1983, supplement); 'Dehumanization and the Bureaucrazy in the Novels by P.C. Jersild' by Ross Shideler, in Scandivavica (1984); 'Afterword' by Ross Shideler, in Children's Island (1986); Närvarande frånvaro by Bo Larsson (1987); Förnyftets brytpunkt by Jonas Anshelm (1990); Contemporary World Authors, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); Den svenska litteraturhistorien by Göran Hägg (1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Vem är vem i svensk litteratur by Agneta and Lars Erik Blomqvist (1999); Das Sinnvolle im Unsinn: eine intertextuelle Analyse ludistisch-parodistischer Textkonstitutionen in Calvinols resa genom världen und Holgerssons von PC Jersild by Susanna Albrecht (2009) - See also: Peter Nilson and other modern Nordic writers, who have published science fiction

Selected works:

  • Räknelära, 1960
  • Till varmare länder, 1961 [To Warmer Lands]
  • Ledig lördag, 1963 [Saturday Off]
  • Calvinols resa genom världen, 1965 [Calvinol's Journey throughout the World]
  • Pyton, 1966 (revue with Lars Ardelius)
  • Prins Valiant och Konsum, 1966
  • Obs! Sammanträde pågor, 1967
  • Sammanträde pågor, 1967 (television play)
    - TV film: Notice! Meeting in Progress, 1967, in Thirty-Minute Theatre, prod. by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. by Philip Dudley,
  • Grisjakten, 1968 [The Pig Hunt]
    - film: Grisjakten, 1970, dir. by Jonas Cornell, starring Hasse Alfredson, Ann-Marie Gyllenspetz, Keve Hjelm, Ingvar Kjellson, Tord Peterson
  • Fänrik Duva, 1969 (published in Refuserat: fyra pjäser, 1969)
  • Vi ses i Song My, 1970 [See You in Song My]
    - Song Myssä tavataan (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1973)
  • Drömpojken: en paranoid historia, 1970
  • Recovery in Schizophrenia, 1970 (with Gunnar and Maj-Britt Inghe)
  • Uppror bland marsvinen, 1972
  • Stumpen, 1973 [Shorty]
    - TV film: Stumpen, 1975, prod. by MovieMakers, dir. by Ingvar Skogsberg, starring Håkan Serner, Ivar Wahlgren
  • Djurdoktorn, 1973
    - The Animal Doctor (translated by Margareta Paul, David M. Paul, 1975)
  • Den elektriska kaninen, 1974 [The Electric Rabbit]
  • Barnens ö, 1976
    - Children's Island (translated by Joan Tate, 1986)
    - Lasten saari (suom. Irmeli Järnefelt, 1980)
    - film: Barnens ö, 1980, prod. Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI), dir. by Kaj Pollack, starring Tomas Fryk, Anita Ekström, Ingvar Hirdwall, Nörje Ahlstedt
  • Moskvafeber, 1977
  • Babels hus, 1978
    - House of Babel (translated by Joan Tate, 1987)
    - Baabelin talo (suom. Irmeli Järnefelt, 1979)
    - TV mini-series: Babels hus, 1981, prod. Sveriges Television (SVT), dir. by Jonas Cornell, written by Bengt Ahlfors, P.C. Jersild
  • Bokens begravning och andra sanna historier, 1980
  • Gyclarnas Hamlet; och monologerna Balans och En rolig halvtimme, 1980
  • En levande själ, 1980
    - A Living Soul (translated by Rika Lesser, 1988)
    - Sielun silmin (suom. Irmeli Järnefelt, 1981)
  • Professionella bekännelser, 1981
  • Efter floden, 1982
    - After the Flood (translated by Löne Thygesen Blecher and George Blecher, 1986)
    - Jälkeen vedenpaisumuksen (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1983)
  • Lit de parade, 1983
  • Den femtionde frälsaren, 1984 [The Fiftieth Savior]
    - Viideskymmenes vapahtaja (suom. Irmeli Järnefelt, 1985)
  • Tre berättelser, 1984 [Three Stories]
  • Geniernas återkomst, 1987 [Return of the Geniuses]
    - Nerojen paluu (suom. Veijo Kiuru, 1988)
  • Svarta villan, 1987 [The Black Villa]
  • Ryktet smittar: en monolog om AIDS, 1988
  • Röda hund, 1988 (with Mati Lepp; reprinted as Alice & Nisse får röda hund)
    - Punainen koira (suom. Eila Jaatinen, 1989)
  • Ett ensamt öra, 1989
  • Fem hjärtan i en tändsticksask, 1989 [Five Hearts in a Matchbox]
  • Humpty-Dumptys fall, 1990 [The Fall of Humpty Dumpty]
  • Alice och Nisse i lustiga huset, 1991
    - Laura ja Nikke Naurutalossa (suom. Tuija Nummi, 1991)
  • Holgerssons, 1991
  • En lysande marknad, 1992 [A Speldid Market]
  • Hymir, 1993
  • En gammal kärlek, 1995 [An Old Love]
    - Vanha rakastettu (suom. Markku Mannila, 1996)
  • Ett gammalt kylskåp och en förkyld hund, 1995
  • Darwins ofullbordade: Om människans biologiska natur, 1997 [Darwin Unfinished]
  • Sena sagor, 1998
  • Ljusets drottning, 2000 [The Queen of Light]
  • Hundra fristående kolumner i Dagens Nyheter, 2002
  • De ondas kloster, 2003 [The Monastery of the Evil Ones]
  • Medicinska memoarer, 2006
  • Edens bakgård, 2009 [The Backyard of Eden]
  • Ypsilon, 2012
  • Författarnas himmel, 2013 (Novellix; Nr 34)
  • Den stökiga psykiatrin: minnen, samtal, tankar, 2015

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