ISLAND OF THE DOOMED: “75 years ago, Dagerman wrote a book for our times …”

IMG_2972Stig Dagerman’s novel Island of the Doomed is published in Russia, 75 years after its first release. Not surprising at all, writes Bengt Söderhäll, culture correspondent of the Swedish daily Arbetarbladet, as he tells the story of Dagerman’s book about humanity in distress. (article translated by Lo Dagerman)

“Dagerman’s novel about a stranded humanity ‘is a novel for our times’, says Natalia Press, Russian translator.  Indeed, humankind finds itself on an island facing extinction, and although the population in Dagerman’s tale is very small, problems related to climate  – both natural and interpersonal – present haunting challenges.

The Russian edition of Island of the Doomed is published by Izdatelstvo Ivana Limbakha in Saint Petersburg. It has since the late 90s been dedicated to the publication of top-rated literature that channels humanity’s yearning for freedom. The release of Stig Dagerman’s novel at this point in time is likely related to the global Zeitgeist, where nature and culture and humanistic gains are threatened by the way we humans interact and  inhabit the planet.

Natalia Press is not new to Dagerman. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on ‘Stig Dagerman and escapism’, that included a translation from Thousand Years with God.

imageDagerman’s  75-year old novel will now reach also Russian readers and maybe it’ll be even more current than it was in the devastation that followed WWII where the focus was on reconstruction. Island of the Doomed, released in May 2021, arrives in Russia almost exactly 35 years after the disaster at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, that forced the instant realization that we all inhabit the same planet, live on the same island.

Dagerman penned his novel in 1946, one year after the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their horror, combined with the atrocities and devastation of WWII, for a young generation set the stage for a fear-filled future. He was 23 – a writer who just the year before had made his debut with the novel The Snake. 

There is a central section in Stig Dagerman’s novel where the doomed people of the island will have to decide about what they wish to leave behind. What trace to leave – regardless of whether it will ever be seen by anybody. They all have agreed on one thing: They will carve the image of a lion into a white rock. But what should it look like? A carnivore at the throat of its prey, or the king of animals running free?

Island of the Doomed initially had the working title “The Struggle for the Lion”, and was expected to be completed by July 1946. It ended up with a different title and more wide-ranging content over 340 pages. Dagerman commenced work on the novel during spring, and then returned to it early summer. He and his family, along with poet-friend Werner Aspenström and his family, then lived together at Kymmendö island in the Stockholm archipelago. Aspenström followed the work’s progression up close: “The writing of the novel slowed to a standstill, and reams of manuscript ready for copy-edit started to arrive from the publisher, probably to urge the writer on /…/ One day Stig Dagerman disappeared only to return the following day pale, exhausted, with an inward smile, after a sitting of fourteen hours without sleep, and most likely without food, having completed the last part of the novel that amounted to at least 60 printed pages.” (Aspenström, Sommar, 1968)

imagePresenting his finished work in October 1946, Dagerman commented on his choice of an island as the setting for the book:The inhabited island has the advantage and attraction that the writer doesn’t risk any accusation that he’s been describing the wrong island. Furthermore, in the days before the book about this island pile up on bookstore counters, he can live in the hope that what he ‘wants to convey’ will mean more to the reader than the unknown wall onto which he has let his thoughts project. It is, of course, a symbolic island, if one by symbolic refers to the necessary compression that the world’s suffering must undergo to make it possible to be viewed, comprehended, and struggled with at a manageable level.”

In the preface to the 2010 Swedish edition of Island of the Doomed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, 2008 Stig Dagerman Award winner and Nobel laureate (in that order), writes: “Here is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable novels of the twentieth century …/…/  It is – as will be all his novels – a text loaded with his own experiences, his rebellions, his failures, but above all of it is replete with damnation and despair, a rejection of even the smallest human comfort.  Is it an anarchistic novel through and through? Possibly, as it denies all progress achieved through violence and shuts itself off in the closed universe of an island, at once stalag, military camp, penal colony, and insane asylum.”

A novel for our time, a novel for the Anthropocene period, a novel to read to further thought and action about what we wish to leave behind. About our tracks. What we’ll carve into the white cliff.

A few years after Island of the Doomed, Stig Dagerman seems to comment on that fearful island where extinction only is a matter of time. But this time, in a poem, he brings all of humanity inside to a safe place:


Raise all the world’s ladders on top of each other

Let all the world’s towers unite into one

How heavenward my ceiling is tonight

In my hall all the stars are lit.


you who walk the earth: you wander indoors

you who stand on a mountain: you’re in your own room

you who see a star: you gaze at your own ceiling

you who adore life: you love the timber of this house

you who die at sea: you fall asleep indoors.”


Article by Bengt Söderhäll,  free-lance writer who always is in conversation with Stig Dagerman

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stellan Skarsgård on THE MAKING OF MAN

imageThere is so much in THE MAKING OF A MAN (documentary, 48 min, 2019) that greatly interests me. As an avid fan of Stig Dagerman’s writing, I could listen to Lo for hours talking about him. But I also appreciate the central question in the film about the meaning of a hero, and how facts get whitewashed to fabricate heroes, as was the case in post WWII France. The film uses Stig’s play Marty’s Shadow as a jump-off point to make the viewer reflect on a great many issues like parent and sibling relationships, politics, courage and manliness.

Having acted in the play, I know it very well, and in my mind the brief excerptsMarty's Shadow poster in the documentary can’t do it full justice. I have always regarded Gabriel as my hero. The intellectual man who is met not only by a mother who doesn’t understand him, but by a whole world blind to him. To me, he is neither a nerd nor a youth on the spectrum. To me, he represents Stig. A man driven to a final desperate action, maybe more symbolic than real, but it’s not committed by a madman.

Screen Shot 2020-09-14 at 11.42.42 AMI believe that Stig’s writing is more important than ever. His unrelenting belief in truth-telling and authenticity, and the role of the individual to take a stand. But the truth, as he well knew, is a complicated thing, full of contradictions, and one where simply following emotions and gut feelings will blow you off course. To read Stig is for me a constant reminder that we must not be fooled by myths that divide humanity into binary good or evil, but  we must always look at humans in their imperfect complexity. Ecce Homo.


Stellan Skarsgård, Stockholm October 20, 2020

VIEW Stellan reading Stig in  OUR NEED FOR CONSOLATION (short film by Dan Levy Dagerman, 20 min, 2012)




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

THE MAKING OF A MAN – New Doc on Festival Circuit!


Screen Shot 2020-09-12 at 10.31.48 AM

LA Official Selection (B)Announcing the September 2020 world premiere, at the Los Angeles Lift-Off Film Festival,  of a film that is a labor of love!! Told across time and space (postwar France & Sweden, present day United States), THE MAKING OF A MAN creatively intercuts interviews, archival footage and segments of the classic, searing and brutal play about toxic masculinity, penned in 1947 by legendary Swedish writer Stig Dagerman.

The play, “Marty’s Shadow”, was inspired by people Stig met during a visit to Paris, a city reeling in the wake of Nazi occupation. It follows the chilling trail of a young man, bullied for being a coward, who searches for a way to become a ‘real’ man. (See the end of this post for links and details to access the film, the play – and the book, The Writer and the Refugee, which tells the story of what happened in Stig’s 1947 encounter with German-Jewish refugee Etta Federn.)

Marty's Shadow posterIn 2017, seventy years after the play was written, it has its American premiere at the August Strindberg Repertory Theatre, off-Broadway in New York. As Stig’s daughter, Lo Dagerman (who was three when Stig died) interviews the cast, she discovers that it has struck a contemporary nerve. Jimi Stanton, who movingly portrays her father’s struggling protagonist, draws on the trauma experienced by his veteran brother in Iraq and Afghanistan. The play’s director, Whitney Aronson, is struck by how the inner life of the Jimi’s bullied character speaks directly to a United States plagued by mass shootings.

Screen Shot 2020-09-14 at 11.42.42 AMTHE MAKING OF A MAN explores  heroism and cowardice, and what it means to be truly courageous, through the lens of four characters. The playwright; his protagonist;  the lead actor; the young French refugee who was the play’s inspiration – each character wrestles  in a distinctive way with the question of what it means to be a man.  Sharing their journeys, the film’s audience comes away with new insight into a profound challenge of our times.

Links for the film (Note: THE MAKING OF A MAN is found in the category called “Trendsetters Features” as no. 14 out of 34 films); the book  The Writer and the Refugee; the play “Marty’s Shadow”.





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lichtman on Wedding Worries

Johannes Lichtman

Johannes Lichtman

Johannes Lichtman (Such Good Work, Simon & Schuster) reviews Wedding Worries. Excerpts from Tin House Winter Reading 2018 Issue 78. Read full review here

 […] Wedding Worries is a polyphonic novel that takes place over twenty-four hours surrounding a country wedding. At the time I first read it, Wedding Worries had yet to be translated into English (though revered in Sweden and hailed in France as the “Nordic Rimbaud” and in Italy as the “Swedish Camus,” Dagerman has yet to break through in America), but the novel was recently released in a highly readable English translation by Paul Norlén with Lo Dagerman. The story centers on Hildur, who is in love and secretly pregnant, but whose beloved has asked her to wait a few years for him to make some money. Instead, she has agreed to marry the wealthy and vulgar butcher from town to avoid the fate of her sister, who had a child out of wedlock and is now stuck on her parents’ farm with her son, bitter and ostracized. Like most of Dagerman’s books, the novel is marked by brutality, but amidst the violence and toil, it’s also a very funny book, populated by a large cast of characters firing one-liners and callbacks.

imgres-5As the story begins, we see a host of people who are stuck: Hildur’s father is stuck in the attic, a recluse scared of the world. “Slow and steady—that’s how God made snails, or whoever it was who made them,” he muses from the room he never leaves. “But whoever made them, he did it well. For what does a snail need speed for? Whatever he treads on is his. Wherever he turns in this world his building rests on its own ground.” Hildur’s mother is stuck watching her favorite daughter leave home for an unworthy husband. And Hildur is stuck in the pregnancy that’s necessitating her marriage.

My own stuckness was less severe than that of any of the characters (while also more severe, since I was a real person). But the thing that separates Wedding Worries from the darkness of Dagerman’s early books (“early” meaning the ones written three or four years prior), and the thing that made it so important for me at the time, is that the characters find ways to get unstuck. […]

A central theme in Dagerman is the importance of free will, even if the action the individual chooses is only symbolic. As he slid deeper into writer’s block, Dagerman tried to convince himself that writing didn’t matter as long as he still had his freedom: “My possibilities are limited only if I try to quantify them according to the number of words or books that I turn out before I die. But who demands an accounting of this sort?” The world, of course, demands an accounting. At the time I picked up Wedding Worries, I wasn’t just waiting to hear if someone would pay me for my words; I was waiting for validation from the world. But as Dagerman argued, as much to himself as anyone else, the individual is the sum of her choices, not her achievements. Even if no one publishes your book, I thought while reading Dagerman, you still chose to write it. […]


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The case of [Khashoggi]

imgres-14The following excerpt is from a speech by Stig Dagerman given at a rally in 1947 to protest the murder of Bulgarian opposition leader Nicola Petkov. In the translation below, Petkov’s name has been replaced by that of Jamal Khashoggi.


“… Each and everyone who takes the life of an opponent attacks not only this individual, but through him or her all opponents, and still more: the core of what it means to be in opposition: to exercise one’s free will, free thought and freedom of expression.

By killing [Khashoggi], [MBS] and his cohorts didn’t only take the life of [Jamal Khashoggi] the man, but of the freedoms to think, believe and act accorded to any self-respecting individual – those very freedoms that many of us, deemed insufficiently “realistic” or “real-politically minded”, hold as invaluable to our way of life.  This means that everybody who views these freedoms as non-negotiable, must protest the murder of [Jamal Khashoggi] not as an isolated gruesome deed by a distant country of little consequence, but as a violent act committed against ourselves and our beliefs in human rights.”

From Stig Dagerman, “Om fallet Petkov”, 1947.  (Translation by Lo Dagerman)

Nicola Petkov

Nicola Petkov


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Amos Oz: Recipient of Stig Dagerman Award 2018 – Acceptance Remarks

amosDear Members of the Jury of the Stig Dagerman Prize. Dear representatives of the Älvkarleby Municipality, my dear publishers and editors, Dear Friends, Dear Guests:

How I wish I could be with you today and visit Stig Dagerman’s Älvkarleby. Thank all of you personally for bestowing this wonderful prize on my works. Personal circumstances prevent me from joining you today, but I am proud and happy for my beloved friend and former publisher/editor, my partner in the “The Order of the Teaspoon” project, Camilla Nagler, to be collecting the prize on my behalf and convey the following message to you.

03f08c7a-495f-4599-b3a9-3a0f5910b20fIn the course of his painfully short life, Stig Dagerman divided his creative energy between writing prose, poetry and essays. He was a man of fascinating contrasts: He expressed very strong social and political views, but at the same time he also conveyed skepticism, doubts, irony, ambivalence and deep compassion for human weaknesses. He believed in certain progressive, even revolutionary solutions, but most of the time he seemed to be much more fascinated by existential problems than by solutions: He was more intrigued by paradoxes of human nature than didactically advocating a specific course of socio-political action. In this respect I feel deep kinship with Stig Dagerman. I share his insight about the fact that “our need for consolation is insatiable”.

SD Award Poster 2018

SD Award Poster 2018

So far I have only read one of Dagerman’s novels: “A Burnt Child”, (translated into English by Benjamin Mier-Cruz). Having lost my own mother to suicide when I was 12 years old, I found a deep sense of kinship with this novel’s young protagonist: The whirlpool of pain and rage and loneliness and self-hatred in this novel is very, very familiar to me in more than one way.

Moreover: the way Dagerman combines intimate experience with universal, social and existential problems, the way he combines sexuality and morality, a search for social justice and a very private soul-searching, the way his anarchistic, playful sense of humor interweaves with utter idealistic seriousness, all of this is close to me, close to my own life, close to much of my thinking and to some of my feelings; Close in some ways, to what I have been trying to do in my own writing.

415NlqH4wML._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Many times in my life I have been called a traitor by some of my own people, by some of my own countrymen. At times of a deadly conflict, many people tend to see reality only in black and white. I have tried, for almost 60 years, to present a perspective of moral complexity, sometimes even moral ambiguity, sometimes even acid criticism of my government and my people. For many years I have tried to present the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians Arabs as a tragic clash between Right and Right; Some other times I presented it as a devastating collision between Wrong and Wrong. I have been advocating for more than fifty years now a painful compromise between Jew and Arab, between Israeli and Palestinian, trying to persuade my readers that compromise is the only alternative to violence, and that the opposite of compromise is not integrity or idealism: The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.

In my novels as well as in my essays and articles I try to deal with various kinds of fanaticism : religious fundamentalism, ideological or chauvinistic zealotry, even puritan radicalism. I try to point out some possible antidotes to fanaticism such as a sense of humor (especially the ability to laugh at oneself) such as curiosity (the ability to see ourselves the way others may see us; The ability to ask ourselves: “What if I were him? What if I were her? What if I were them?”)

19AMOSOZcover-mediumThreeByTwo210I am a restless storyteller from a small country plagued these days by selfish nationalism, extremism, a country which is sometimes living on a cloud of self-righteousness. However, I am aware of the fact that my wrongdoing country exists in an extremely hostile, militant, violent region.

As I watch Israeli society, Middle East turbulences, and an almost universal retreat toward various kinds of fundamentalism – I still believe that different people may find the ability to coexist, even to display a degree of empathy toward their opponents and rivals. I still raise my voice against injustice and against hatred. I still believe that simply to shout “Fire!”, whenever you see fire, is not enough. You must try to put the fire off. Even if what one can do is very limited, it is still significant. Each of us ought to do as much as she or he can. It is in this spirit that I humbly accept the honor you are bestowing on me today. Thank you. Thank all of you. May tolerance, peace, and compassion prevail.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable … (film text excerpts)

MV5BNjE5MTQ1NDc2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzk4NzA2MDE@._V1_UY268_CR9,0,182,268_AL_Original title in Swedish: Vårt behov av tröst är omättligt … (1952). The following excerpts are narrated by Stellan Skarsgård in the short film Our Need for Consolation (2012) by Dan Levy Dagerman. Text selection and screen adaptation by Lo Dagerman, Dan Levy Dagerman and Brian Levy based on a draft translation by Steven Hartman. 

I have no belief and because of that I can never be a happy man. Because happy men should never fear that their lives drift meaninglessly toward the certainty of death. I have inherited neither a god nor any fixed point on this earth from where I can attract a god’s attention. Nor have I inherited the skeptic’s well-hidden rage, the rationalist’s barren mind, or the atheist’s burning innocence. But I would not dare to cast a stone at those who believe in what I doubt, much less at those who idolize doubt as if that too were not surrounded by darkness. That stone would strike me instead, for there is one thing of which I am firmly convinced: our need for consolation is insatiable.

I seek out consolation as a hunter tracking prey. Wherever I glimpse a sudden flash in the woods, I shoot. Usually, empty air is all I hit. Yet, sometimes, the target drops right at my feet. The breath of consolation is as fleeting, I know, as a breeze sifting through the treetops – even so I seize it.

What is it then that I am holding in my arms?

Since I am alone: a lover, or another lone drifter. Since I am a poet: a bow of words whose tension fills me with both joy and dread. Since I am a prisoner: a sudden glimpse of freedom. Since I am threatened by death: a warm, living creature its heart beating scornfully. As I fear the sea: a foothold of unyielding granite rising just above the tide.

But there are also consolations that come to me like uninvited guests and fill my room with their vulgar whispers: I am your desire – lust after everyone! I am your talent – abuse me as you would yourself! I am your hunger for pleasure – only the one who tastes lives fully! I am your solitude – despise humankind! I am your longing for death – cut!  STELLAN+SKARSGÅRD+-+On+Camera+Narrator

[ … ] No one can count the times when we may need consolation. And no one knows when the shadow may fall.  [ … ] My life is a balancing act haunted by two opposing forces: On the one side: a greedy appetite for excess, and on the other: a cheap bitterness that only feeds on itself. But I refuse to choose between orgy and abstinence.  [ … ]

I have no philosophy in which I can move like a fish in water or a bird on the wing. All I have is an endless struggle, every second of my life, between false consolations that only add to my feeling of powerlessness and deepen my despair, and true consolations that bring me momentary freedom. I should probably say the true consolation, because for me only one exists: the one that allows me to know myself as a free human being, within my own boundaries, untouchable. [ … ]

03f08c7a-495f-4599-b3a9-3a0f5910b20fI can walk on the beach and suddenly sense in the endless tides of the sea and in the endless chase of the wind, the terrifying challenge that eternity poses to my existence. [ … ] I can sit before a fire in the safest of rooms and suddenly sense death all around: it’s the fire, in every sharp object at hand, in the weight of the ceiling and the mass of the walls, in the water, the snow, the heat, and in my blood. [ … ]

I can fill all my white paper with the most beautiful combinations of words that light up in my mind. Since I long for confirmation that my life is not meaningless, that I am not alone on this earth, I collect my words into a book and give it to the world. In return the world gives me money and fame and silence. But what do I care for money and what do I care if I contribute to the evolution of literature – I only care about that which I never receive: confirmation that my words have touched the world’s heart. [ … ]

We all have our masters. I am such a slave to my talent that I dare not use it for fear of discovering that it has been lost. I am such a slave to my reputation that I hardly dare write a line. When depression finally sets in, I become a slave to that as well. My greatest ambition becomes to hold on to it; my greatest desire becomes to feel that my only worth lies in what I fear that I have lost: the ability to squeeze beauty out of my despair, anxiety and failings. In bitter joy I long to see my houses fall into ruins and myself snowed under, forgotten.

But depression has seven nested boxes, and in the seventh lies a knife, a razor, a vial of poison, deep water and a leap from a tall building. Finally, I become a slave to these instruments of death. They stalk me like a pack of wild dogs, or am I the dog following them? And then it appears to me that suicide is the sole proof of human freedom.

stigsmile-222x300But from a direction still unknown to me, comes the miracle of liberation. It could occur on the beach, where the same eternity that so recently awoke my fear, now witnesses the birth of my freedom. What is the miracle made of? Simply: my realization that no power, and no person, has the right to make such demands on me that my desire for life disappears. For without that, what can exist?

As I stand by the sea, I can learn from the sea. No one can demand of the sea that it bears all our boats, or of the wind that it continually fills our sails. Likewise no one has the right to demand of me that my life should be captive to performing only certain tasks. Not duty above all, but life! I, like everyone else, must have the right to step back from that working mass of humanity called the earth’s population, and experience myself as a separate being.

Only at that moment, I can stand free of the harsh facts of life that gave rise to my despair, and acknowledge that the sea and the wind will indeed outlast me, and that eternity is not concerned about my fate. But who asks me to care about eternity? My life is short only if I place it on Time’s chopping block. My possibilities are limited only if I count them in the number of words or books that I may turn out before I die. But who asks me to count?

[ … ] Everything significant that I experience, all that lends my life a sense of wonder: a 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 when faced with beauty– all of this occurs beyond the bounds of time. Beauty is the same whether we take it in for only a second or for a span of a hundred years. It does not matter. [ … ] And so I lift the burden of time from my shoulders, and with that also the demand to perform. My life is nothing that should be measured. Neither a buck’s leap nor the sunrise is a performance. A human life is not a performance either but a growing toward perfection. That which is perfect does not strive to achieve. It works while at rest. It would be absurd to say that the sea exists to carry armadas and contain dolphins. It does these things, of course, but with its freedom intact. And it would be absurd to say that people exist for anything else but to live. Certainly, humans feed machines, or write books, but they could as easily do something else. All the while, maintaining freedom. Like every other part of creation, man is an end in himself – resting like a stone in the sand. [ … ]

Stig Dagerman in the Stockholm archipelago, 1951

Stig Dagerman in the Stockholm archipelago, 1951

Yet, it is not in my power to constantly remain turned toward the sea and know its freedom as mine. There is a time when I have to turn toward land and meet the organizers of my oppression. And there I find that humans have created forms for their lives that seem stronger than themselves. With all my newly won freedom I cannot crush these forms, only groan under their weight. [ … ]

One kind of freedom, I realize, is forever gone. It is the freedom that comes with owning your own element. The fish has its own, the bird its own, the land creature has its own. The human being, however, moves with the peril of a stranger in all the elements. Thoreau still had his Walden. Today, where is the forest in which human beings can live in freedom, outside the hardened molds of society? I have to reply: nowhere. Today, if I want to live freely, it has to be within these walls. The world is stronger than I. I have nothing with which to meet its power other than myself. But on the other hand, that is everything. As long as I do not let myself be defeated, I too am a power. And my power is tremendous as long as I have the strength of my words with which to challenge the world, because those who use words to build prisons cannot measure up to those who use them to build freedom. But on the day when all that remains to defend my integrity is my silence, my power will be boundless, because no axe can cut the silence that breathes.

This is my sole consolation. I know that lapses into hopelessness will be many and deep but the memory of the miracle of liberation carries me like on a wing toward the dizzying goal: towards a consolation that is better than a consolation and greater than a philosophy – a reason to live.


Stig’s entire essay in a translation by Steven Hartman was published in Little Star #5, 2014 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“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)


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Do We Have Faith in Humankind?

— 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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments