This is an essay that Stig wrote in 1950 reflecting on his writing process in general, and the writing of A Burnt Child and Wedding Worries in particular.
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.
Before 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 is 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.
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.*
But 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.
Once 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.
A 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)