Book review: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45 – Pippi Longstocking author’s take on a dark era

The diaries of Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking, offer a highly charged and often witty take on life during the Second World War.

Norwegian refugees arrive in Sweden after the German invasion of Norway around April 1940. Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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Published diaries unlock secrets. When a novelist’s diaries see the light of day, that exposed self helps us reassess reputations and reappraise literary work. It allows us to determine just how much of the author’s life informed art and what degree of fact was in the fiction. To this end, the diary is not just a useful accompaniment, it is a valuable supplement.

All the more valuable when the diary is discovered out of the blue, and years after its owner wrote the last entry. In 2013, 17 leather-bound diaries belonging to Astrid Lindgren were found in a wicker laundry basket at the author’s Stockholm address. Lindgren, who died in 2002, is the third most translated writer for children (after Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm). Her most famous literary creation, the super-strong and headstrong Pippi Longstocking, made her debut in 1945. But before Lindgren wrote her first book, she avidly filled up diaries, which followed the jagged course of the Second World War. Published last year to great acclaim in Sweden and Germany, Lindgren’s diaries now appear for the first time in English.

Like George Orwell, who wrote a two-volume wartime diary, Lindgren gave her journals a name: The War Diaries. A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45 comprises commentary on, and criticism of, each new development in the conflict, but also accounts of the ups and downs of domestic life for a married mother of two. It makes for a perfect blend, and we come away with a rare and fascinating insight into Lindgren's life, views and fears during the darkest chapter of the 20th century.

Each section of the book covers a diary year. Lindgren begins on September 1, 1939, noting how the day before she was sitting in a park with a friend, “giving Hitler a nice, cosy telling-off” and agreeing that war would not break out. Hostilities are unleashed and a harsh new reality quickly takes hold. Lindgren panics as Germany crushes Poland, and Russia bombards Finland (“My knees felt shaky all day”), and prepares for the worst by stockpiling supplies in her attic.

The following year brings more contingency measures. Denmark and Norway are overrun and occupied, leading Lindgren to declare that “the Nordic countries are a theatre of war after all”. Swedish ships and submarines are sunk and in time the country is on a state of high military alert. Lindgren is forced to adapt to blackouts and curfews, rationed food and limited hot water. In addition, she waits for news of her husband, Sture, being called up for military duty, and braces herself for an order of evacuation.

But instead she stays put and commences what she calls “my secret ‘defence work’, which is so secret that I daren’t even write about it here”. In the book’s foreword, Lindgren’s daughter, Karin, reveals that her mother’s “hush-hush” late-evening job involved steaming open letters and blacking out sensitive information for the Swedish Mail Censorship Office.

Early on Lindgren expresses her antipathy towards Russia and Germany through carefully chosen put-downs. For her, both countries and ideologies are distasteful: “National Socialism and Bolshevism – it’s rather like two giant reptiles doing battle. It’s not pleasant having to side with either reptile.” Although she is shocked at the rampant German war machine, she lives in dread of a Russian invasion: “I think I’d rather say ‘Heil Hitler’ for the rest of my life than have that happen.”

But as the war rages on, Lindgren’s antipathy deepens and is directed solely towards Germany. Gradually, we witness her becoming more jaded and more caustic. On some pages she can barely conceal her hatred. Germany “is like some malevolent monster that emerges from its cave at regular intervals to pounce on a fresh victim”. She makes a point of separating innocent German civilians from their ruthless overlords, and feels for those who end up as collateral damage, caught in crossfire and bombed in Berlin. One outburst stands out: “If one could just bundle together the Gestapo with all its murdering henchmen and bomb them to death, I wouldn’t have an ounce of sympathy.”

But in 1944, Lindgren makes an effort to combat her anger and gloom by way of a brand new pursuit. Juggling parenting duties, censorship work and diary instalments, she starts writing down some of the stories she used to dream up for her children at bedtime. “Karin’s had a nasty case of the measles and still isn’t allowed out of bed,” she writes in March, adding: “I’m currently having really good fun with Pippi Longstocking.” A year later, one of her last diary entries runs: “At the moment I’m reworking ‘Pippi Longstocking’ to see if I can make anything of that bad child.” Just as the war ends, Lindgren’s phenomenal writing career takes off. Her bad child is a source of good.

The diaries are at their most compelling when Lindgren lays her emotions bare. As evidenced by the book’s title, many a cri de coeur is a wail about the latest instance of global carnage. “What a world, what an existence!” she exclaims after flicking through the newspapers. “I’m staggered by the amount of sickness and distress, grief, unemployment, poverty and despair that can be fitted into this wretched earth.”

It is therefore somewhat jarring when, against this misery, Lindgren makes mention of her own good fortune. The family lives “sumptuously” and eats well. In June 1943 she writes that 100,000 people in Athens are dying of hunger – then adds that “in Sweden we are doing remarkably well on the food front”. Only butter is “tricky” to come by. On her 33rd birthday in 1940, she explains that “there wasn’t the slightest trace of belt-tightening”. Christmas 1944 is equally lavish: sacks stuffed with presents and fridges and larders stocked with “more food than ever”.

Not that Lindgren ever gloats about her charmed life, or sits idle and indifferent within her sheltered cocoon. We find her frequently counting her blessings and agonising over Sweden’s neutrality. She feels guilty rhapsodising over a new spring: there are “people killing each other with the sun shining and the flowers budding”. She takes in a young Finnish boy, remains committed to her state security work and regularly rails against Germany’s next wave of atrocities. She tries to feel sorry for German soldiers freezing on the Russian front, but her sympathy only extends so far when news comes in from Sweden’s besieged neighbour. “Things are shocking in Norway,” she writes. “Just the other day 1,000 Jews, women and children among them, were deported to Poland and certain death. It’s the work of the devil!”

Lindgren’s commentaries veer towards the dull when she is simply regurgitating news reports of countries attacking or capitulating. She is far more interesting when she offsets private developments and thoughts with the chaos of the outside world: “Today was Karin’s sixth birthday. Today the Germans reached the English Channel. And today summer arrived, wonderful and painfully lovely to take in, with all one’s senses.” At other junctures her updates are suffused with mordant wit: “I’ve bought a fur coat – even though doomsday is likely to arrive before I’ve had time to wear it out.”

Such wit appears in surprising abundance. Lindgren routinely refers to the war as a “punch-up”. The British prime minster Neville Chamberlain is “The nice old gentleman with the umbrella who was always running late”. Hitler’s mad diktats are “dear little decrees”.

Sarah Death’s skilled translation captures Lindgren’s subtle humour, varied tones and nuanced meanings. If there is fault here, it concerns not Lindgren’s content but the explanatory material on either side of it. Karin’s scant, two-and-a-half-page foreword feels perfunctory and sheds little light on what lies ahead. In contrast, the 15-page glossary at the end of the book is too long and reads like an overcrowded who’s-who compendium. Potted descriptions of family members or Scandinavian politicians are welcome, but do we really need the additional clutter of the all-too well-known (Hitler, Adolf – “dictator 1939-45”) or the obscure (Karlsson, Gustav Adolf – “Swedish clairvoyant”)?

Neither section, however, mars our enjoyment of Lindgren's vibrant chronicle. A World Gone Mad is a trove of a book, crammed with gem-like observations and truths. By the end of it we have glimpsed a brutal war from a different angle and seen a whole new side of a much-loved writer.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance reviewer based in Edinburgh.