I like just about everything about Sweden, even the weather. I like their intellectuals, too, mostly for being both meticulous and down-to-earth—at least by the standards of intellectuals. But when I think about the position of intellectuals in Swedish culture, I always think about a moment from the late 90s. I was at a party in the medieval Swedish university town of Lund—a quieter, less touristed version of England’s Cambridge. The man who’d hired me to give some lectures had kindly invited me to his house to a gathering of all his friends, including one of his oldest and dearest. The two had known each other since childhood, growing up in a small town and dreaming of Brecht’s Berlin theater and Picasso walking with Gertrude Stein left bank. My host had become an established professor in a fine old Swedish university, a man who spoke a refined English and (though it was hard for me to judge) a beautiful version of his native tongue. He wrote gracefully about culture for the main Swedish newspapers, translated poetry, and had authored a study of Renaissance sonnet sequences. His old friend, though, was the real success—and like so many truly ambitious citizens of small countries, had left to make his mark on a bigger stage. He held a chair at the Sorbonne, was the world expert on certain elements of classical civilization, was a member of the Swedish Academy, voting on the Nobel prizes. At the party he took me aside, punched me lightly on the arm, and said “You want to know about Swedish culture? Look at him…” he made a graceful, Gallic gesture at the host, laughing gently at someone’s witticism across the room. “In Sweden, there are 2,000 like him. The rest have snowmobiles.”
Make of it what you will.