Per Olov Enquist, Literary Lion of Sweden, Dies at 85

Per Olov Enquist, an acclaimed Swedish novelist, playwright and journalist who for decades was a leading voice in Scandinavian literary and cultural life, died on April 25 in Vaxholm, Sweden, a village northeast of Stockholm. He was 85.

The cause was organ failure after years of declining health, said Hakan Bravinger, the literary director of Norstedts, Mr. Enquist’s publisher.

A prolific writer who grew restless when not working on a book, Mr. Enquist, better known to his many readers as P.O., published more than 20 novels, along with plays, essays and screenplays. His work has been widely translated and won numerous literary prizes throughout Europe, including the August Prize, twice, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Nordic Council Literature Prize.

Mr. Enquist was a co-writer of the screenplay for Pelle the Conqueror,” a father-son story, based on a novel by Martin Andersen Nexo, set in early 1900s Denmark. Starring Max von Sydow and directed by Bille August, it won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1988.

Kirkus Reviews once referred to Mr. Enquist as “one of the world’s most underrated great writers.”

Many of his novels used historical scenarios or famous figures to explore philosophical, religious and psychological themes. He favored self-questioning, truth-seeking narrators and perfected a semidocumentary storytelling approach that borrowed from journalism.

His big breakthrough, “The Legionnaires” (1968), was written in the style of a documentary novel. It was based on true events surrounding a group of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian men who were drafted into the German army during World War II. Although the soldiers surrendered to the Swedish authorities, they were imprisoned and later deported — a lingering wound in Swedish politics that Mr. Enquist probed unreservedly.

It was a role he relished: Mr. Enquist became something of a public intellectual, weighing in on issues of the day in his columns for Scandinavian newspapers and on TV.

“The Royal Physician’s Visit,” perhaps the Enquist work best known to American readers, is a rowdy historical novel from 1999 about sex and politics in the Danish court of the 1770s, when the rule of young King Christian VII was usurped by his German doctor, who took the queen, Caroline-Mathilde, as his lover.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Bruce Bawer said Mr. Enquist had “shaped this remarkable story into a gripping, fast-paced narrative,” calling his prose “rich in arresting epigrams and marked by calculated repetitions that give the novel a touch of hypnotic power.”

Tiina Nunnally, who translated “The Royal Physician’s Visit” and three other Enquist books, said his writing style was “unlike any other.” She recalled a debate she had with the author’s American publisher, Overlook Press, regarding Mr. Enquist’s use of punctuation.

“The editors were a little taken aback because in ‘Royal’ he has hundreds of exclamation marks — sometimes in the middle of a sentence,” Ms. Nunnally said in a phone interview. “They said, ‘Should we normalize it?’ I said, ‘No, it’s his style.’”

Mr. Enquist would study a historical subject exhaustively before writing. But he wasn’t interested in just rendering the costumes, furniture or other atmospheric details of the period, Mr. Bravinger said. “He is interested in the psychology, in the characters,” he said. “It’s never a costume drama. It’s a psychology drama.”

In his novels, stories and essays Mr. Enquist was equally penetrating in drawing on his childhood in a small village in northern Sweden, his success as a track athlete and his time as a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In his 2008 memoir, “The Wandering Pine,” which he narrated in the third person, Mr. Enquist was unsparing in describing his years spent drinking, which nearly destroyed his writing career and himself along with it. After emerging from alcoholism in the 1990s, he wrote some of his most celebrated books.

Mr. Enquist’s work was frequently characterized as dark or melancholic. But it could also be funny and life-affirming, Mr. Bravinger said.

Speaking on a radio show in 2009, Mr. Enquist described puzzling over the meaning of life until, finally, he asked his dog, Pelle. In the end, Mr. Enquist said, he and Pelle determined that it wasn’t that complicated: “One day we shall die. But all the other days we shall be alive.”

Per Olov Enquist was born on Sept. 23, 1934, in the isolated village of Hjoggbole, roughly 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle. As he wrote in his memoir, most villagers never left. His father, Elof Enquist, a laborer, died when Per was an infant. His mother, Maria (Lindgren) Enquist, was a schoolteacher who raised her son in an evangelical community. He wasn’t introduced to the movies until he was 16.

Driven to succeed in the world, he earned a degree in literature at Uppsala University, Sweden’s oldest university, and publishing his first novel before he was 30. He lived much of his life in cosmopolitan cities like Stockholm, Copenhagen and Paris.

But his insular, pious childhood remained with him. “If you have had an upbringing like mine, you never get away from it,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “You get to be 80 and read the Bible again. It’s an upbringing that marks you like a branding iron.”

On his 70th birthday, in 2004, the journal Swedish Book Review devoted an entire supplement to Mr. Enquist. “This Northern Swedish environment, with its strong evangelical influences, has turned out to be not only the background for much of Enquist’s fiction, but also the stimulus for his lifelong search for truth,” Ross Shideler a professor of comparative literature and Scandinavian at U.C.L.A., wrote in his introduction.

But, Mr. Enquist told The Guardian, “I wouldn’t want to change it if I could.” Being free of distractions and steeped in life’s big questions, he said, was good training for a writer.

After establishing himself as a journalist and novelist, Mr. Enquist discovered that he had a gift as a playwright. His first play, “The Night of the Tribades,” written in 1975, examined the chauvinism of another Swedish literary star, August Strindberg. It had a brief run on Broadway in 1977 and led to several more plays, as well as a lucrative side career writing for film and television.

Mr. Enquist was married three times. His wife, Gunilla Thorgren, a journalist, survives him, along with a son, Mats, and a daughter, Jenny, from a previous marriage.

Mr. Enquist’s other novels include “Hess” (1966), about the German politician and Nazi party member Rudolf Hess; “Lewi’s Journey” (2001), about the Pentecostal movement in Sweden; and “The Story of Blanche and Marie” (2004), about Marie Curie. His last novel was “The Parable Book,” a published in 2016.

Long before he was a literary lion, Mr. Enquist was a champion in the high jump. By some accounts he nearly qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome. And he brought that sense of competitiveness to his writing, even to matters like page counts, Mr. Bravinger said.

“It would need to be more than 450 pages,” Mr. Bravinger recalled of one Enquist book. “You would think, Who cares? But it was a mind-set. He was always trying to top the last book. And the novel was always the pinnacle.”

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes