“Wedding Worries and Other Upsets”

In this essay from 1950, Stig reflects on the writing of his novel Wedding Worries and his creative process at large.

Stig with his grandparents at the farm ca 1931

Stig with his grandparents at the farm ca 1931

Late one evening in 1931, I went into a stable loft on the farm in Älvkarleby in search of a lost kitten. It wasn’t there and neither were the two tramps who had arrived at the farm that evening. They had probably slipped into an empty stall, but all of that doesn’t matter much. More important was that in the same week had received a hunting knife by mail-order from Oscar Ahrén’s in Stockholm, and a flashlight from the Coop store.

In the evenings I usually lurked about shining my light on the logs of sheds and stable – the guest-books of the poor – carving my name into new places. Also this particular evening, I slid the knife out of its hold ready to cut but it so happened that I had made visible two letters already there from much earlier: EE. At first glance they looked completely freshly carved but then a memory came back to me. They belonged to a former suitor of one of the daughters on the farm. Now he had been gone for quite a while, yes, so long that the daughter he once desired was to celebrate her wedding to somebody else on the farm the following evening.

I don’t know what evil drove me to it. In any case, I walked straight inside to the people who were stringing up paper garlands for the festivities in the ceiling of the large room, telling them that there was a newly carved EE on the wall of the stable loft. A lot of commotion ensued and everybody felt compelled to go and have a look. As the resident expert on name carvings, I was instantly believed. A couple of Es can cause considerable upheaval if delivered at the right time. This moment gave birth to a whole novella based on a suspicion: Oh Lord, one of the tramps is disguised or is there maybe a third one in hiding who has come all this way to wreck the wedding! The suspense, worry and fear grabbed us all and didn’t lose its hold until the last candle burnt down late into the wedding night.

brollopsbesvar coverBefore this eighteen-year old memory became the novel Bröllopsbesvär/Wedding Worries it had met with many fates. The usual fate of this kind of fertile memory is that it becomes like a hanger onto which experience drapes its different suits. Before I began writing the novel, the memory was already heavily laden with all kinds of garments. My fantasy for example, had hung up its silken shirts: What would have happened if EE really had been there? How would life have turned out if EE suddenly had knocked on the door to the house of the wedding and demanded to sit at the table? Then regret had hung up its golf-pants: Why did you not tell the truth, my friend? Also loss had probably been at it, dabbling with a tie or two: Why does time not stand still for those who are happy? Why do you always have to leave the places you love? And why must people you love leave you behind all alone?

But fine memories are only memories and don’t make novels. What separates the novelist from the memoir-writer, among other things, is his relationship to his memories. The latter must imagine that the memories are left intact, exactly where he left them as events, unchanged and unchangeable. The former has to draw conclusions based on his knowledge of the deceptive nature of memory. He might even, with all his power support the deception. To him, a memory is not a fact but a pretext – a body of water across which he can build his bridge.

As a bridge builder, I am fascinated by the solutions to three main problems: First, there Stig_Dagerman skriveris the problem of connection. I hope to be able to break my own isolation by having one support secured within myself; the other found within those people to whom I turn for solace. Secondly, there is the problem of construction, to create the suspension, the artistic problem.  I want to test the powers of my talent. A talent that I am condemned to constantly question, except in those rare moments when I rise far above my own confusion and seem to glean an arch, far more daring that I ever hoped for. Finally, there is the problem of the surroundings. I want to offer a panorama of a body of water, until now unknown, but one that I believe is worthy of a bird’s eye view.

Which memory I will select as a pretext among all possible pretexts, depends on which problem at that moment is the most urgent to solve. One time it might be the secure connection to land; another, the beauty of the arch or the panorama – all contingent upon the nature on my despair. There is also some kind of stinginess that predisposes the writer to leave certain energy-draining themes to the care of time, in the belief that he not yet has the power to employ them at their fullest. But this is a treacherous self-deception as it has been shown that the more you scoop out of the well of real life the more abundant it gets.

For me yet another element is added to the choice of pretext. Since I always doubt myself: the authenticity of my talent, the honesty of my views and the power of my emotions, I have to seek validation from constant new sources and endless new forms. To maintain a belief in myself, I have to continually refute what I have previously done. I not only drift like a Flying Dutchman between all literary types of expression, I am also forcing myself to undertake projects where my efforts are doomed to failure from the get-go alternately disguised as an itinerant speaker, reviewer, director, foreign correspondent, and so on in all eternity.

First English edition

First English edition

The important thing for me is that when the inevitable failure comes, it hits me not like pain but as liberation because it also provides me the courage to escape into creativity and the art of writing. In the summer of 1948 I was aimlessly traveling from place to place in Northern France, dragging with me a weighty writing assignment for a Swedish magazine: a series of articles about French farmers. But the whole country lay closed as a clam to me and I possessed no knife. My saving grace became an escape into A Burnt Child, into the writing of a novel where, for as long as it lasted, I was unavailable to shame and discouragement.

When one year later the identical situation occurred, the saving mechanism worked in exactly the same fashion but the result was an entirely different book. The subject of A Burnt Child was one young man and the novel was written with death-defying control in a clear and straightforward manner. Its purpose was to examine a few characters from a strict psychoanalytical perspective. This time my goal was a different type of novel: uncontrolled, wildly colorful and loud – filled by a multitude of people, and this time real people who through the power of their authenticity did not lend themselves to simple psychological analysis. These individuals existed only in my childhood. Finally, the time had arrived for the memory of 1931.

I found myself on an ocean-liner crowded with refugees destined for Australia. My assignment was to get in as close a contact as possible with the passengers in order to gather material for the setting and story of a film. This was a task that seemed simple enough for the first three days, but that after two weeks exposed the entire width of its impossibility. Art is among other things a form of freedom created by distance. But a ship is a prison surrounded by water. You cannot live tied to your subject matter and at the same time exploit it. If one day I thought that I had found a clear trajectory through the multitude of thirteen different nationalities, it was broken the next day like a flimsy Italian matchstick. Too much knowledge simply forced itself upon me and I couldn’t shield myself from it. The further we travelled down into the Southern Hemisphere with its semi-darkness of winter and biting winds of June, the more hopeless my situation. When I finally disembarked in Australia, my knowledge about my subject matter in the very short-term – the only time horizon in film– was less than I had known as we embarked in Naples.

As I sat waiting for the plane back home from a frozen, strike-stricken Sydney lit up by stable lanterns and wax candles, I finally gave up the script idea and fled into the writing of a novel. I traveled by a clipper across the Pacific Ocean in the company of a wool trader from Lille. In just five days, I would be forced to account for my expensive failure. So it was necessary for me to quickly mount a defense to help me through the difficult time that lay ahead. But the immediate task was to come up with a name for the defense.


The first morning of my travels, I was standing shaving together with the wool trader behind the small restaurant at the fuel stop on one of the Fiji islands. The sun was shining and the flowers abundant, and the huts spread out around us had their thatched straw roofs drawn deep down over their eyes as over-sized hats. The natives who walked by featured white lace-dresses and hairdos aiming for the skies.

I cut myself and discovered “Three Tramps”.

I used the journey toward Honolulu to try to figure out what was hidden in that name. I pictured the three tramps on the morning of the wedding. I could see the straw, the horses and the spider-webs by the windows. I looked out the widows and saw the mound outside and the house in which so much were to take place. I entered the house and walked up to the sleeping bride. But I had to be careful not to walk too far. By virtue of the title, the tramps were assigned the main roles. It was their relationship to the wedding festivities that were to take center stage, the different ways in which they were excluded. I could picture all the tramps of my childhood from 1925 to 1934. And the tramps I pictured were different than Martinsson’s Bolle.*

SF 45But already in Honolulu I started to feel uneasy by the limitations of the title. Freedom suddenly presented itself on a hot street in San Fransisco, while on a long and sweaty beggar’s journey to the Swedish Consulate caused by the bad habit of American airlines to lodge dollar-poor transit passengers on long stopovers at such luxurious hotels that they can’t pay their bills. I came across the title “The Swan- Song” in the middle of a hill and at once everything turned for the better, both the errand and my chances of a good defense. The tramps receded into the background, and I readied myself for entering the wedding party. The old failed singer who before only vaguely had come into view, now stepped onto center stage embodying the intention of the whole novel encapsulated within the new title: the wedding was to be the swan-song of many.

stig reading paperOnce back home in Sweden, some of the first things I came across while reading a newspaper was the advertisement for a book called “The Swan-Song”. At first, this came as a chock but later it proved to be of assistance. It helped me discover the freedom captured by the title “Wedding Worries” where the celebration itself, with its full sensual potential, would become the main character. The two other stories: “Three Tramps” and “The Swan-Song” turned into invaluable complements to this third one.

stigsmile-222x300A Burnt Child had been written in great loneliness in a locked room in a sleeping French village, with a continent between the writer and those he had betrayed. Wedding Worries had to be written under constant pressure from all those who demanded delivery on earlier commitments and repeated escapes that took me wide and afar. A cross draft of ideas threatened to capsize the novel, but even that was necessary for it to become the negation of A Burnt Child that felt so urgent to me. Everything that happens while I write has to somehow be included: the moose that appear outside the cottage, the failed fireworks at the crayfish party next door, and the people I love or hate in that moment. But above all, the fear that emanates from the phones of daytime and the safety that only night can provide.

That safety, so without responsibility, is indispensable to me. Night carries no other dangers than silence and darkness, but strong light and music are provided from the most faithful of all: the Rias-Berlin radio station. My tormentors are asleep in their beds having forgotten about me, and their oblivion gives me the courage to recall my own self. My sole happiness is found in the fatigue following a night of good work. When the cool air of dawn presses against the windows, for the first time suggesting to me the mighty arc I dream of constructing. When radio stations come to life: Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin. There is something deeply comforting to me in calmly going to bed when others rise. For a brief moment this consolation can hide every bitter fact. For example, the fact that I am begging for reconciliation and community but all I shall receive is an aesthetic assessment. Yes, for an instant it even helps me against the evil that I think is the worst of all: a fear of my fellow humans and writing for money.

“Bröllopsbesvär och andra”, essay by Stig Dagerman, 1950

Translation by Lo Dagerman

* “Bolle” was the name of the tramp main character in Harry Martinsson’s The Road (1948)


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In Defense of the Politics of the Impossible – The Case of World Citizens for Peace

La politicaLa Politica dell’Impossibile, a well-received recent Italian collection of Stig Dagerman’s political articles (Iperborea, 2016). The following article from the collection is on The World Citizen movement for peace spearheaded by American Garry Davis.

“Politics has been called the art of the possible. It is an apt epithet because that which is possible is what is the most reduced and circumscribed of all. So putting your faith in what is possible implies an upfront censorship of all those possibilities that risk and hope and dreams can generate. In the world of the possible, humanity is nothing but a captive chained to the galley of dread and indifference. Against the world of the possible, humanity is as powerless as against death.

Garry Davis, Dean of the One World Movement

Sol Gareth “Garry” Davis (July 27, 1921 – July 24, 2013) was an international peace activist who created the World Passport, a travel document originally based on Article 13(2), Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on the concept of world citizenship.

The enduring merit of Garry Davis is that he has revealed to us, anew, the existence also of the art of the impossible, an art form that at this moment probably is the most critical of them all. It is important not the least as an effective remedy for the fear and passivity that usually accompanies too long a sojourn in the world of the possible. I know that Garry Davis has met with much skepticism, even among his own supporters: What, really, are his practical achievements?

But what do they mean by “practical”? Personally, as a libertarian socialist, I think that what Davis has accomplished is enough: He has managed to get masses of people to doubt the art of the possible and to believe, or at least harbor the hope, that not only politicians but also individual citizens have veto right over those questions of life and death that so far has been regarded as solely being within the purview of states, power constellations and governments. I believe that the discovery of the existence of this veto power, and the necessity for it to exist, is one practical outcome of Davis’ work as good as any. Another is that it has inspired hordes of young European writers to more carefully than ever clarify their own positions, and therefore also that of each individual, in the world of the possible. Maybe this doesn’t sound like much, but it is still a great deal simply because formulating one’s position is a precursor to action.

Garry Davis, supported by Camus, Sartre among others, in French court.

But if by practical achievements they mean a concrete shift in the political situation, it is natural to remain skeptic to Mr. Davis’ peace movement. The Iron Curtain has not been lifted one iota, and the agent that previously was the most important for peace, the international labor movement, remains just as divided, thoroughly politicized and foreign to its old slogan: General Strike Against War. But nothing of this, I think, should prevent Davis’ supporters from prevailing, well aware of the fact that this is just a start. We cannot know if it ever will become more than a beginning, but that should not matter. Neither should we think it therefore insignificant, because it is never meaningless to prefer the impossible to the possible. The one thing that is meaningless is to resign yourself to the latter. “

— Stig Dagerman (1949)

translation by Lo Dagerman

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Do We Have Faith in Humanity?

— Stig Dagerman, 1950. His response to a magazine question posed to six authors.

IMG_20160101_113657875_HDRTo speak of humanity is to speak of oneself. In his relentless indictment of humanity at large, the individual himself is a part. Only death can separate him from his charges. So even as judge, he will always be found on the bench of the accused.

Nobody can claim that humanity is in the process of decay without having observed the same putrid symptoms in himself. Nobody can say that humanity is evil without he himself having been part of evil deeds. There is no such thing as unshackled observation. He who lives is the life-long prisoner of humanity and contributes, willingly or unwillingly, to an increase or decrease of the human inventory of happiness and misfortune, greatness and humiliation, hope and despondence.

And so I dare to venture, the fate of humanity is at stake everywhere and at all times, and the responsibility of one life for another is immeasurable. I believe in solidarity, compassion and love as humanity’s last white shirts of hope. Above all the other virtues, I hold the form of love called forgiveness. I believe that an individual’s thirst for forgiveness is impossible to slake, not due to some original sin traced to heaven or hell, but to the fact that we from our very beginnings are confronted by a merciless world upon which we can affect less change than we wish.

But here is the tragedy in our situation: while I am convinced of the existence of human virtue, I doubt the human capacity to halt the holocaust we all fear. And the doubt is there because it is not humanity who makes decisions about the world’s ultimate fate but political blocs, constellations of power, clusters of states that speak a different language, that of force.

Design includes entire text and is by Jan Landvist and Swedish Stig Dagerman Society

Design includes entire text and is by Jan Landvist and Swedish Stig Dagerman Society

I believe that the natural enemy of mankind is the mega-organization. It robs the individual of his vital responsibility for his fellow man. It shuts down his propensity for solidarity and love, instead making him a stakeholder in a power that seems directed at others, but ultimately is directed at himself. Because what is power other than the feeling of not having to pay for the consequences of evil deeds with your own life but with those of others?

If, at last, I were to declare the futile dream that I like many others carry, it would be this one: that as many people as possible will realize the need to break away from hateful and inhumane power blocs, power churches and power organizations, not to mount new structures but to weaken the sway of life-destroying forces in the world. Such a realization may be humanity’s only chance to relate as one fellow human being to another, to once again become one another’s friend and source of joy.

Translation by Lo Dagerman and Max Levy


Translators’ note: In his last sentence, Stig alludes to “Man is the joy of man” (No. 47) from Havamal, Norse poems from the Viking age.

Young was I once, I walked alone,

and bewildered seemed in the way;

then I found me another and rich I thought me,

for man is the joy of man.

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Per Wästberg, Swedish Academy Chair, on Stig

Per Wästberg

Per Wästberg

There are perhaps only three contemporary Swedish authors of the highest caliber who have reached the wider world: the poets Gunnar Ekelöf and Tomas Tranströmer, and Stig Dagerman, who in spite of his death at 31 lives on in new editions and research, especially in France where he is considered a Nordic existentialist in the tradition of Camus. This philosophy aside – rife during the 1940s and 50s – Dagerman ploughs the deepest grooves of existence. And it is from this chasm of dark poetry that he has been held up as a role model for our time.

Literary Nobel Laureate JMG Le Clézio speaks of Dagerman’s iconoclasm, his wild imagination and self-destructive humor, his mixture of curse and despair. Concluding his preface to Island of the Doomed,  Le Clézio writes: “With humble gratitude to Stig Dagerman who consumed by his own fire showed us the way.“

Dagerman’ essay Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable was separately published in France and has been reprinted for decades. In France, of Swedish classics, only Strindberg is better known. Dagerman’s blend of anguish and intellectualism has won him readers, particularly among young people who may be afraid of adult responsibility but seek an earnest discussion about the meaning of life. In France, some twenty famous authors have testified about their experiences reading Stig Dagerman’s novels, particularly A Burnt Child and Wedding Worries. He has been revived, not least through his dramas, also in Italy and Germany, where most of his work has been published. In the USA, a new translation of short stories, Sleet, was recently published and met with strong response.

stighalsdukFrom the start, Dagerman was a European witness. A poet and a reporter, a dramatist and not least a masterful author of Dagsedlar, daily poems published in the newspaper where he worked – bitingly ironic, always siding with the vulnerable. Eleven volumes of his collected writings appeared in Sweden in the 1980s and testify to the versatility and mastery of language.  But also his despair, that so many have come to identify with as if it is of their own time. Dagerman worked across many fronts. A loner who sometimes was drawn to the glitter of high society; an eroticist in search of the mother who had given him up at birth.

He is a role model today because Dagerman was one of the few who stood for human rights, no matter which way the wind blew. Tirelessly attentive and fierce against dictators in the Eastern Bloc, rearmament and racism in the USA, Swedish compliance in the case of Raoul Wallenberg and the Catalina plane downed by the Russians. He stood up for the rights of the individual against the powers that be, for the tortured and imprisoned against a hangman’s pains of power.

The role of literature to him was to fight for the freedom of the individual and lay bare the meaning of freedom. He considered a State’s insistence on the subjugation of its citizens, whether on a greater or smaller scale, a deadly illness. This theme of the individual vs. the collective runs through his novel Island of the Doomed. Another theme he will return to, again and again, is the failure of honesty and disclosure as a road to empowerment and the possibilities of self-deception.

stigseriesIt is said that all great literature is about love and death. In Dagerman’s case: much death, little love. He bears the middle name of a drowned man. With absentee parents, he was raised by a beloved grandfather who was stabbed to death by a madman. His grandmother died of grief soon thereafter. His closest friend died in an accident. It seemed to him as if death and suffering was drawn to him. Anguish was his to inherit. Two things fill me with terror: the Executioner within me and the blade of the guillotine above me [from The Snake]. But there was also joy and tenderness, a hearty dose of humor and angry protestation against the abuse of power. Nearly seventy years ago, he was appointed Cultural Editor of The Worker, a daily that offered generous column space to young writers. I myself began writing there as a 17-year old and met Dagerman in the smoky corridors of the Klara Folkets Hus. He was a shy person, least of all opinionated, tolerant even, in the company of rich and poor alike, and humorous to boot.  At  dinner with publisher Carl Björkman, I watched Dagerman pick up the phone at 3 a.m., ever fascinated by the facility of technology, and call Sven Aurén in Paris. He was one of the authors signed by the publishing house and a reporter for radio and the daily Svenska Dagbladet. Aurén was awoken by Why aren’t you here, we miss you, and flew into a rage that he hadn’t been invited.

Dagerman has proven to be timeless in spite of his writing being peppered by markers of the 1940s: the ice-block melting in the hallway, the radio in the place of honor in the living-room, and the water streaming down the window of the fish store. Wedding Worries, his novel anchored in the farming society of a bygone era, sets the stage for a timeless play about guilt and death – inhabited by characters observed through the eyes of a child: magnified, grotesque, frightening. Like in a ballet, each take form in light reflected by others, and the novel’s famous raps on the window pane carry a message to them all – about another possible world, about duty and joy, about the friend for whom everywhere I seek. In short: about our need for consolation.

I heard Stig Dagerman read his poem Birgitta Suite at a high-school for girls at Bohusgatan in Stockholm. I have heard few people read as beautifully and gently. In this piece, he moved from anguish to longing, from fearfulness to becoming his own “key to freedom”, and here love is the answer to the question of freedom. Who knows what freedom is, Birgitta, if not the one whose love is boundless?

stigseries1In 1943, when Dagerman was given an exemption to marry because he was under-age, he acquired two parents-in-law who were anti-Nazi Anarcho-Syndicalist activists and who miraculously had eluded the concentration camps. Annemarie Götze became a Swedish citizen through marriage, and that meant protection. Stig moved into the home of his parents-in-law where other refugees gathered, and that gave him a window onto Europe’s struggles and destruction. At the same time, in this home in working-class Stockholm, he rediscovered some of the calm assurance of his grandparents’ farm.

In November 1950, Stig Dagerman met actress Anita Björk and would live with her for four years. It was in their joint home that he struggled with what might have become a great work, that shimmering fragment: A Thousand Years With God. He wanted to be seen and heard, but still not reveal himself. He veiled himself but came to be seen with clearer clarity. Dagerman drills into a private well, an existential current springs forth, and from the darkness a robust vitality is unleashed. He speaks for those who are vulnerable and those who search for answers to eternal questions. It is among young people that he still has a majority of his readers.

Dagerman said that he was suffering from a chronic self-hatred, and an immutable stigdrawingpredisposition that would harm others. He needed death like a tightrope walker his stabilizing stick. I only care about that which I never receive: confirmation that my words have touched the world’s heart [from Our Need for consolation Is Insatiable]. In uttermost solitude, space starts to sing. It is in the proximity of death that his prose becomes most urgent. Guilt, anxiety and fear run deep in most of his writing. In Dagerman’s work no one manages to establish real human contact. My lack of freedom is my fear of living. His friend, the poet Werner Aspenström, called him an unrealized death-mystic and felt that his service in the world was like a guilt-ridden apology for a secret longing for reconciliation beyond it. A dream of salvation without religious connotation: I beg for reconciliation and community but all I will receive is an aesthetic appraisal.

Still, it can be argued that freedom is the key word in his writing, and that a novel like Wedding Worries should be read primarily as an affirmation of the possibilities of individual freedom. Here, he is far from being a pessimist obsessed by angst, and instead someone who finds freedom in down-to-earth conscious pragmatism like make do with what you have. 

Stig Dagerman once discussed his novel A Burnt Child at Stockholm University and outlined his manifesto: I believe in solidarity, compassion and love as the last white shirts of mankind. Above all other virtues, I hold a form of love called forgiveness. /…/  It is this goodness that exists in every human being that makes it possible for us to expect and provide consolation. [from Do We Believe In Mankind?]

And: One thing only is in your power: to treat a fellow human well. [from the poem A Brother Gained]


— Speech at the inauguration of Manuskript, sculpture by artist Lars Kleen to commemorate Stig Dagerman — Enebyberg, Stockholm, May 2014

Translation by Saskia Vogel and Lo Dagerman

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For One Day A Year, Let’s Make Believe….

In February 1953, Stig pens one of his daily occasional poems (Sw. dagsedlar) for publication in The Worker. He titles it One Day A Year. Very similar in tone to John Lennon’s Imagine. Stig’s poem is well-known in Sweden, inspiring, among other things, the Dagerman Award given annually by the Stig Dagerman Society (Read more).

EN DAG OM ÅRET                                               ONE DAY A YEAR

En dag om året borde alla låtsas                       For one day a year, let’s make believe

Att döden vilar i ett vitt schatull.                       that Death rests in a well-hewn box.

Inga stora illusioner krossas                              No grand illusions get blown to bits

Och ingen skjuts för fyra dollars skull.            And for a dollar’s sake, no one gets shot.

Världskatastrofen ligger lugnt och stilla         World Calamity lies sound asleep,

Emellan lakan på ett snyggt hotell.                   calm between sheets at a first class hotel.

Inget rep gör någon broder illa,                         No rope encumbers a brother’s breath,

och ingen syster slumrar vid ett slutet spjäll.  and no sister slumbers by a gas-filled vent.

Inga män blir plötsligt sönderbrända              No men are suddenly charred by fire,

och ingen dör på gatorna just då.                      and no one dies in the streets right then.

Det är lögn, det kan väl hända                            All lies, I know, yet still I contend:

Jag bara menar: vi kan låtsas så.                      for one day a year, let’s just pretend.


– Stig Dagerman, February 23, 1953

Translation by Lo Dagerman in collaboration with Nancy N. Carlson and Brian Levy



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On Seeking And Offering Refuge

Slide1  Flykten valde oss

Fågeln väljer flykten. Vi valde den icke.
Flykten valde oss. Därför är vi här.
Ni som ej blev valda – men ändå frihet äger,
hjälp oss att bära den tunga flykt vi bär!

Bojan väljer foten. Vi valde att vandra.
Natten var barmhärtig. Nu är vi här.
Ni är för många, kanske den frie trygge säger.
Kan vi bli för många som vet vad frihet är?

Ingen väljer nöden. Vi valde den icke.
Den valde oss på vägen. Nu är vi här.
Ni som ej blev valda! Vi vet vad frihet väger!
Hjälp oss att bära den frihet som vi bär!

Stig Dagerman
Dagsedlar (21.4 1953)

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CRITIC’S BEST BOOK PICK 2014: Dagerman’s Short Fiction

Swedish book critic Stina Otterberg picks NATTENS LEKAR  Collected short fiction by Stig Dagerman, preface by Colm Toíbín (Norstedts, 2014). DN.se 12/13/14

DAGERMAN’S RESISTANCE OFFERS CONSOLATION Review (excerpt translated by Lo Dagerman), DN.se 12/6/14

In these days of Nazi-flavored racism in the Swedish parliament*, we would like to summon Stig Dagerman from the dead to let his social commentary in the form of satirical verse alleviate our need for consolation.

Stig Dagerman (1923-1954) wrote thousands of such verses for The Worker during the 40s and 50s. They were quick, brief observations. Sometimes with an undeterred pessimism, like a child looking at the world point blank. Keyed-in to sources of pain. In verse after verse, Dagerman speaks about twisted views in a twisted society– not too distant from our own. With biting irony, he pens Damned Foreigners:

Pity the Swede; feels so out of place.

Gone is his home; there’s simply no space. 

Wearing his slippers, next thing he knows, 

a throng of Hottentots runs off with his shoes.

Journalism and journalistic qualities make up a significant part of Dagerman’s writing. His report German Autumn from 1947 is only one of many examples. And when I read his short fiction – now re-published in Sweden under the collective title Nattens Lekar (The Games of Night) with a preface by Colm Tóibín – I think that the short fiction genre might have suited the newspaper man Dagerman particularly well because it offers drama – a story. 

It is said that a short story should be constructed around an extraordinary event. Stig Dagerman knows how to spin his tales around exactly this fact. Many generations of students have learned storytelling technique by analyzing his short stories “To Kill A Child” or “Where Is My Icelandic Sweater?” But these texts are also so vivid that you forget about the writer’s bag of tricks – overtaken by suspense, a sense of gravitas and your own reflections.

Stig Dagerman is said to have personified the literary style of the Swedish 1940s. Darkness and anxiety have a home in his texts. In his novel The Snake, the object is to remain in touch with one’s inner fear, to keep its channels open “like a harbor that never freezes over”. The closest I can come to lines like these in contemporary Swedish literature is Steve Sem-Sandberg (The Emperor of Lies). In his writing, I find the same compass needle directed straight at evil. If it quivers, it is a sign only of the sender’s anger.

Others have pointed to hallmarks characterizing all of Dagerman’s oeuvre: he is both political and apolitical, and he never supplants the individual for the collective, His texts can never be reduced to a simple programmatic outline.

I think about this when I read the title story The Games of Night about the boy Åke who, running for his life, is trapped in his dysfunctional family. His dad wastes his earnings getting drunk, while his mother cries in her room at night. There is no sentimentality in Dagerman’s description of Åke and his world, no intruding grown-up perspective. There’s simply a sense of sheer solitude as the boy with the help of his magical thinking tries to make things better. The fantasies that keep Åke awake at night are not serving as liberation as much as compulsion. The sole means at his disposal to try to create order.

What might Stig Dagerman have written about if he had been allowed to live longer? We don’t know. We have to be grateful for the writing of his that we have. Like the remarkable glowing introduction to Thousand Years with God – Dagerman’s unfinished novel about legendary Swedish writer Carl Jonas Love Almqvist in exile. The text opens with God being tired of his appearance as light and silence. “Eternity nauseates him; his robe falls way. A shadow takes form among the stars, night descends.”  Entering the human realm in the early 1800s, God decides to pay a visit to the home of Isaac Newton. How is that for an extraordinary event?!

Indeed, Dagerman’s whole oeuvre is extraordinary. Let us forever continue to read him so that the letters SD* in Sweden will stand for Stig Dagerman only and nothing else.

Translator’s note: Stig’s short stories in English in SLEET, translated by Steven Hartman, preface by Alice McDermott (Godine, 2013)

* Sweden Democrats is an anti-immigrant party gaining support



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To Stig’s Memory Nov 4, 2014

by Lo Dagerman – preface to Chilean Mar y Tierra’s anniversary publication.

Everything significant that I experience, all that fills my life with a sense of wonder—meeting with a lover, a caress on my skin, help in distress, eyes reflecting moonlight, sailing on the open sea, the joy a child inspires, a shiver in the face of beauty—all of this occurs beyond the bounds of time.
– SD, “Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable”, 1952. 

His text is an anthem to freedom, says Christian Olivier about Stig Dagerman’s  essay Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable. Olivier is the singer of the French group Têtes raides that in 2008 toured France with a recital of Stig’s text set to reggae. It became quite a sensation. Stig Dagerman wrote this essay when he was twenty-nine, two years before his suicide in 1954.

The theme of freedom runs through all of Stig’s writing. His search for it. In its various shapes and forms.

In the beginning of his career, it was primarily about political freedom. Stig became an Anarcho-Syndicalist at seventeen and cultural editor of The Worker, the movement’s daily, at twenty-two.  Even today, his political commentary in the form of satirical verse is well-known in Sweden and often put to music. Stig advocated a decentralized form of socialism where the individual would experience both influence and accountability.

I believe that man’s natural enemy is the mega-organization because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man, /it/ restricts his possibilities to show solidarity and love and instead turns him into an agent of power, that for the moment may be directed against others, but ultimately is directed against himself.         – SD, Do we believe in man?”, 1950.

The once powerful Anarcho-Syndicalist movement lay crushed in the ruins of World War II.  Communism with its centralized power structure and infringement on human rights was the winner on the left.  Stig held on to what he called “the politics of the impossible”, the importance of a higher ideal however utopian.  He refused the binary option between Capitalism and Communism forced by the Cold War. Existential philosophy attracted him. He sought solace in Camus’ Sisyphus who, forever rolling his rock up the hill, extracts meaning out of meaninglessness.

Disillusioned by postwar politics, Stig went deeper into the inner aspects of freedom. He himself had psychological wounds that beset him. His mother had deserted him at birth, a fact that created in him feelings of rejection and loneliness.  Not being worthy of love. When Stig could write, the wound hurt less. He even made it his business to lay bare, investigate and analyze his emotions.  As a way through and forward, toward transcendence and freedom.

For five intense years Stig wrote novels, journalism, plays, short stories, poems and essays at a fast pace. Trying to meet ever-rising expectations, most of all probably the high bar he himself had set.  He travelled around the globe. He fell in love. He remarried. Chasing consolation. But at 27, Stig had run himself into the ground. Beset by a writer’s block and depression that fuelled each other in a downward cycle.

To write was Stig’s door to freedom. Now he felt that door closing.  Not knowing why. Our Need for Consolation is insatiable is Stig’s analysis of what is happening to him. Why are his thoughts hooked on suicide?  Where can he find himself at peace “resting like a stone in the sand”? His desire for life recharged?

The text is an anthem to freedom. Stig never ended his search for that.  And, also this time he was successful. He wrote himself free.  Through his meditation on our universal need for consolation, he himself could make out a glimmer of hope.

But Stig could not hold on by himself.  His depression was deep-seated and no effective help available. He took his life on November 4, 1954.

Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable is a unique document even today when self-disclosure about depression and suicidal ideation is more common. Translated into many languages, it has become a text that offers inspiration and consolation to others in search of healing.

Stig – you wished that your words would “touch the world’s heart”. They do!


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Self Deception In A BURNT CHILD

A question from a reader: “I just read A Burnt Child, and I have been thinking quite a lot about it. I can see that it is partly about self-deception but I can’t describe how properly. Could you possibly help me, by summarizing what in the book makes it clear that it is about self-deception?

Here is my take:

Reading Bengt’s letters to himself, you can see how he in the beginning denies his sexual interest in Gun. In fact, he says that he hates her, that what she’s doing is immoral, and he plans to somehow take revenge on her on behalf of his “pure” deceased mother.

Bengt is not lying about his intentions, he just doesn’t have a clue about the real nature of his obsession with her. It’s all in his unconscious, and Bengt’s ego is valiantly defending against his sexual longing as that longing is unacceptable to whom he so far understands himself to be: an individual of the highest moral integrity (in contrast to his father whose actions he despises).

Stig examines how Bengt gradually brings the real state of affairs into his awareness: Gun isn’t as ugly as he thought, in fact, she is quite beautiful; she isn’t as repulsive as expected, but interested in him; he notices that he can’t be hostile to her, etc. His commitment to truth forces him to observe his own behavior and then he recognizes that he is, in fact, in love with her. That in turn, brings on turbulent feelings that are difficult for him to manage: he becomes jealous and murderous; despairing and suicidal. What Stig does is to look at how these feelings rage within this inexperienced highly strung young man, and how Bengt’s thinking about his feelings and actions gradually allows more complexity: Instead of hate, he feels love for Gun, but this love is complicated, he discovers, as it is linked to the loss of his mother. As he gains insight into his feelings, he becomes calm. After Bengt’s suicide attempt, for example, Stig, the narrator, writes: ” …little by little, you are infused with a warm certainty: you didn’t do it to die or to be saved either – but to have peace. Peace with everything inside you that wanted to die, peace with everything outside of you that pressured you to live.” (A Burnt Child “When the Desert Blooms”, first para)

It is as if Stig uses the book as a laboratory to explore what happens to a young, naively idealistic – some would say fanatical – person when powerful events (death and betrayal) throws him into completely new and turbulent emotional territory. The question Stig wants us to think about is whether we can always trust the explanations we tell ourselves about our actions? “Sometimes we do something without knowing why. And once it is done, we are surprised that we did it. Or sometimes we are even afraid. But from the surprise, as well as the fear, comes an explanation. It has to come. Because the unexplained fills us with a dread that we cannot tolerate for long. But by the time the explanation is thought of or uttered, we have already forgotten that it came after – that the deed came first. If we’re never reminded of it, because the act corresponds with the explanation, then everything is fine. But sometimes everything is not fine. This is when it suddenly occurs to us that the explanation given to us is mendacious, and that after the consequences of our action become clear to us in light of all that has happened, the explanation reveals itself as a distortion of our true intentions. This is when we experience real dread, because real dread is being unable to rely on your thoughts on their own. Real dread is knowing that your thoughts lie to you, even when you think you are being honest.”  — A Burnt ChildTea for Four or Five, first para

Bengt’s journey in the novel ends with him feeling calm. At that moment, this young man is no longer in self denial. “We are not happy but feel momentary peace. We have just witnessed our life’s desert in all its terrifying grandeur, and now the desert is blooming. The oases are few and far in between, but they do exist. And although the desert is vast, we know that the greatest deserts hold the most oases. But to discover this, we have to pay dearly. The price is volcanic eruption. … Therefore, we ought to bless the volcanoes, thank them because their light is dazzling and their fire scorching. Thank them for blinding us, because only when we are blind can we gain full sight. And thank them for burning us, because only as burnt children can we give others our warmth.”  A Burnt Child, When the Desert Blooms, second to last para

I would like to add a caveat: Don’t try this at home. Bengt did not get any professional help to handle his “volcanic eruption”: his outpouring of destructive violent emotions.  So he was in great danger – his sense of calm came, as Stig writes, at a very high cost indeed. Stig himself did not have experience of therapy – those were simply not the times (194os). Today we can get help to explore our feelings, impulses, thought patterns and behavior in safe settings.


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Stig Into Turkish

by Halil Gôkhan, Writer and Editor of KAFEKÜLTÜR in Istanbul
If I remember correctly, the first time I heard Stig Dagerman`s name was  in 2005 when I learnt that  the Turkish writer and journalist Yasar Kemal had received an award from the Swedish Stig Dagerman Society. Kemal got this award in 1997 with the motivation that he had used his words and language, relentlessly and without compromise, for half a century as a possible human path toward lasting peace and freedom.
Since that discovery, I found an interesting variety of information about Stig Dagerman’s life and I started to read some of his works. One day, a friend’s mother and lecturer at the ODT University Yasemin Projo brought to me an English translation of A Burnt Child. This translation deepened my interest even more.
At that time, I was a freelance editor and writer so the best I could do in order to get Dagerman’s work translated into Turkish was to recommend him to a number of Turkish publishers.  My efforts, however, were not successful. I remember that I even added three or four other well-known authors, who also had committed suicide, thinking that this information might make it more attractive to the Turkish publishers to take on Dagerman.
In addition to the works I read in English, I also read  Notre besoin de consolation est impossible a rassassier (Our Need for Consolation is Insatiable) which was a gift from a French friend of mine,  and I was impressed.
Since 2012, when my desire to became a successful publisher came true, one of my first projects is to try to translate and publish in Turkey two books of this precious author – The Snake and A Burnt Child .

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