I got to know Stig in 1947 when his first drama The Condemned was being staged at the Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. He actively participated in rehearsals and spent a lot of time at the theater and we, who rehearsed other plays, always ran into him in corridors, stairs and in the canteen.
At 25, Stig was a slender man with his hair in disarray and constantly carrying a cigarette in his hand or dangling from his mouth. He had a burning gaze which he often lowered when spoken to. Later he told me that he found it difficult to meet people’s eyes. He felt naked – as though people could see straight through him.
Stig had sensitive nervous hands which he often used to emphasize a point. But most of all he liked to listen and let other people do the talking. Something quite outstanding in Stig’s personality was his delicate conscience and his immense tenderness toward other people. He was very afraid of hurting anybody. In all, Stig was a sensitive intelligent young man who would listen to what you’d have to say in a sympathetic and tactful way. Everybody loved him of course.
Several years later, when we were married, I followed Stig’s struggle to write at close range. He stayed up late at night, sitting at his typewriter – each morning only to tear up the pages he had written. But one night in the early part of 1954, he woke me up carrying a tray with tea and lit candles. He had finished the first chapter of a major novel he was planning. I listened as he read a piece titled A Thousand Years with God in his tense voice filled with anticipation.
“There are times when God tires of his usual guise of light and silence. Eternity sickens him and his cloak falls. A shadow takes shape among the stars and the night moves in. In the house of Newton, in London, preparations are unwittingly being made for His singular visit. The evening is late and through the rain a carriage glides along the street towards Newton’s house. It passes through the arched gate and circles to a stop outside the house as oak leaves drift incessantly to the ground.” (translation by Steven Hartman)
A Thousand Years with God tells the story of how God visits Isaac Newton in his study, on the day of Newton’s death. In his room, Newton has a collection of silence that he has gathered from all parts of the world, and it is understood that nobody is to speak in Newton’s presence. To be sure, he has a mute butler whose heart beats without a sound. He is the son of silence and Newton loves him.
God’s presence in the room becomes evident when the silence suddenly is broken. God dispels the silence and the mute butler speaks. Then God proceeds to abolish the law of gravity, Newton’s holy discovery. As the butler drops a tray carrying Newton’s afternoon tea, the tray quietly floats up toward the ceiling where it hovers. When the butler makes a move to bring it down, he also rises and hits his head against the wood-paneled ceiling. Later, at Newton’s public funeral, embarrassed relatives and dignitaries bring in heavy chains to keep the coffin from taking off into the air. Part of the story is filled with absurd hilarity. But Stig also outlines a deeply felt conflict between his own need for faith, and his conviction that all beliefs are built on deceit.
Afterwards, as Stig finished reading, we were both overcome by emotion. We were struck by the extraordinary reach of the piece, and by the possibility that now, finally, Stig might have broken through his own silence.
Excerpts from a talk by Anita Björk in New York, 1991, on Stig Dagerman.