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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