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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Meeting Stig

By Michael Meyer, from his introduction to The Games of Night, 1959. 

I first saw Stig Dagerman in 1948, when he came to speak in a debate at Uppsala University. He was then 25 years old and already had three novels, three plays, a book of travel reportage and a collection of short stories to his credit. He was above medium height and well built, with a gentle, broad-boned face. What one noticed about him first was his eyes, which were large and – I had almost said staring, but that word would give an entirely wrong impression; they were intensely reflective, mild and unseeing, like the eyes of a blind man. He spoke haltingly, in a low and scarcely audible voice, and my recollection is that his line of argument was rather muddled, but that out of it emerged several sharply perceived truths.

Another five years passed before I actually met him, in the early summer of 1953, at a small party given by his publisher, Ragnar Svanström, at the latter’s country cottage on an island if the Stockholm archipelago. Dagerman was there with Anita Björk, the lovely and talented young actress who he was shortly to marry; eight of us ate by candlelight, and then he and I walked and talked on the shore outside. I found him, in his shy way, a delightfully gay and impulsive companion. We spoke in English, for he talked the language well, – his French and German were also good – and, like so many Swedes, he enjoyed conversing in a foreign tongue. When we returned to Stockholm later that evening, I drove him and and Anita Björk back to their house at Enebyberg, just north of Stockholm. We continued talking late into the night, and finally I was put to bed inn their guest room.

During the next three moths, I visited them often, and the pattern was always the same. The three of us (for we were usually alone) and would talk until about one o’clock. Then Anita would yawn, and go to bed; whereupon there would be a change of subject. Up to now we had talked about the theatre, literature, people, and the state of the world – all the subjects which people aged thirty like to discuss on summer nights – but once Stig and I were alone the conversation almost invariably turned to football /am. soccer/, for which he had an extraordinary passion. Late summer is the beginning of the football season in Sweden and we would discuss the prospects of this team and tat until it struck two and I would totter upstairs to my guest room. Even then he did not always go to bed. Sometimes he would climb the extra flight to his study in a small tower which rose above the house, and I would fall asleep to the sound of his typewriter.

This typewriter, alas, now held a very different significance for him from what it had symbolized when I had first seen him inn 1948. Then, he had been a prolific young author at the height of his powers; but after 1949, a strange kind of paralysis had overcome him. Every author’s nightmare of finding himself unable to write had, for Stig Dagerman, become reality, and fir the past three and a half years he hd produced nothing. It was not that he was short of ideas; he would conceive an exciting plan for a book or a play, and would ring his publisher in an ecstasy of excitement; and advance would be paid; but somehow he, who had formerly been able to write 60 pages in a single night, could now scarcely complete a chapter. The tappings of the typewriter which penetrated from his room in the tower to my small guest room below were the efforts of a man to overcome a paralysis; a paralysis from he was never to escape, and which a year later was to drive him to suicide.

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I don’t remember exactly what year it was when we, a group of young Swedes, all read Stig Dagerman and in particular his novel A Burnt Child, but it would have been some-time in the early 1950’s. We were a dozen or so school friends of both sexes who were about to finish school. We were at a stage when we realised that suddenly the many years of daily contact would come to an end, and we would all be going our different ways, maybe grow apart and lose touch. There were so many important choices to face up to: choices of study, career, political orientation (getting the vote at 21), as well as choice of life partner. The boys had to cope with military service, and the career choice certainly weighed more heavily on them than on us girls. We would have sworn that we were absolutely equal in every respect but, if we were honest, we girls still knew at the back of our minds that we had a sort of opt-out chance, a possibility of a career break at least, if we married and had children: the boys on the other hand knew that they would always be expected to be the main bread-winners. In other words, we were at quite a vulnerable stage in our lives, searching for solutions and open to suggestions. I suppose we felt that Bengt in A Burnt Child was one of us, still a child in some ways, battling with becoming a grown-up and convinced that he was really superior to the adults around him. We were drawn to a character who, unlike us, dared to follow his ideas uncompromisingly. We probably didn’t see the self-centredness in Bengt any more than we saw it in ourselves. I don’t remember us discussing the events in the book or what we felt about Bengt’s grief, or his relationships with his father, his weepy fiancée and his “stepmother”. It was the talk of purity combined with youth and innocence that struck a chord with us: the idealistic notion that somehow, somewhere, there was a “pure” life we should strive to live, a life of one hundred percent commitment, a life that did not involve shoddy compromises or second-bests. “What parents call experience is nothing but … successful attempts at denying everything that, in their own youth, they regarded as pure, as true, as right.” A sentence like that would be underlined in our copies of the book.

Rereading some of the statements again now, I am uncomfortably put in mind of today’s fanatics and fundamentalists (“To be pure is to be able to sacrifice everything except the one thing you live for”, “A pure human being can do things other people do not have the right to do”), but back then – half a century before 9/11 – we would have understood it as simply listening to our inner voices and being true to ourselves. Our teacher of religion, a wise old man, had given us, mostly non-believers, a definition of morality which we could all relate to and which reflected his own touching belief in humankind: morality is “inner faithfulness”. We probably looked at Bengt’s attitude in the light of that.

Most of us soon learnt to conform and compromise, become adults. (And, incidentally, we did not lose touch but are still great friends.) Maybe we have occasionally regretted that we have not always lived up to the ideals of our youth, but in our heart of hearts we know that it is the only way to live. I say “most of us”, because one of the boys in our group did not make it. Two years after Stig Dagerman’s death, that boy was found dead in the family car in his father’s garage. Whether it was a “copycat” act is hard to say. There were no doubt many different factors that led to his suicide but, worldly-wise as only 22-year-olds can be, I think we felt at the time that we understood the real underlying reason he had taken his life: rather than compromise, he had opted out.

Brita Green lives in the U.K.  and occasionally writes on poetry and translation issues

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In the Forest of Paradoxes

J.M.G. Le Clezio

Extract from J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Nobel Lecture December 7, 2008

Shortly before I received the—to me, astonishing—news that the Swedish Academy was awarding me this distinction, I was re-reading a little book by Stig Dagerman that I am particularly fond of: a collection of political essays entitled La Dictature de chagrin (The Dictatorship of Sorrow). It was no mere chance that I was re-reading this bitter, abrasive book. I was preparing a trip to Sweden to receive the prize which the Association of the Friends of Stig Dagerman had awarded to me the previous summer, to visit the places where the writer had lived as a child. I have always been particularly receptive to Dagerman’s writing, to the way in which he combines a child-like tenderness with naïveté and sarcasm. And to his idealism. To the clear-sightedness with which he judges his troubled, post-war era—that of his mature years, and of my childhood. One sentence in particular caught my attention, and seemed to be addressed to me at that very moment, for I had just published a novel entitled Ritournelle de la faim (The Old Song of Hunger/LD). That sentence, or that passage rather, is as follows: How is it possible on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence.”     (from The Writer and Consciousness)

At Dagerman's birthplace in Alvkarleby, Sweden

This “forest of paradoxes”, as Stig Dagerman calls it, is, precisely, the realm of writing, the place from which the artist must not attempt to escape: on the contrary, he or she must “camp out” there in order to examine every detail, explore every path, name every tree. It is not always a pleasant stay. He thought he had found shelter, she was confiding in her page as if it were a close, indulgent friend; but now these writers are confronted with reality, not merely as observers, but as actors. They must choose sides, establish their distance. Cicero, Rabelais, Condorcet, Rousseau, Madame de Staël, or, far more recently, Solzhenitsyn or Hwang Sok-yong, Abdelatif Laâbi, or Milan Kundera: all were obliged to follow the path of exile. For someone like myself who has always—except during that brief war-time period—enjoyed freedom of movement, the idea that one might be forbidden to live in the place one has chosen is as inadmissible as being deprived of one’s freedom.

But the privilege of freedom of movement results in the paradox. Look, for a moment, at the tree with its prickly thorns that is at the very heart of the forest where the writer lives: this man, this woman, busily writing, inventing their dreams—do they not belong to a very fortunate and exclusive happy few? Let us pause and imagine an extreme, terrifying situation—like the one in which the vast majority of people on our planet find themselves. A situation which, long ago, at the time of Aristotle, or Tolstoy, was shared by those who had no status—serfs, servants, villains in Europe in the Middle Ages, or those peoples who during the Enlightenment were plundered from the coast of Africa, sold in Gorée, or El Mina, or Zanzibar. And even today, as I am speaking to you, there are all those who do not have freedom of speech, who are on the other side of language. I am overcome by Dagerman’s pessimistic thoughts, rather than by Gramsci’s militancy, or Sartre’s disillusioned wager. The idea that literature is the luxury of a dominant class, feeding on ideas and images that remain foreign to the vast majority: that is the source of the malaise that each of us is feeling—as I address those who read, who write. Of course one would like to spread the word to all those who have been excluded, to invite them magnanimously to the banquet of culture. Why is this so difficult? Peoples without writing, as the anthropologists like to call them, have succeeded in inventing a form of total communication, through song and myth. Why has this become impossible for our industrialized societies, in the present day? Must we reinvent culture? Must we return to an immediate, direct form of communication? It is tempting to believe that the cinema fulfils just such a role in our time, or popular music with its rhythms and rhymes, its echoes of the dance. Or jazz and, in other climes, calypso, maloya, sega.

For all his pessimism, Stig Dagerman’s phrase about the fundamental paradox of the writer, unsatisfied because he cannot communicate with those who are hungry—whether for nourishment or for knowledge—touches on the greatest truth. Literacy and the struggle against hunger are connected, closely interdependent. One cannot succeed without the other. Both of them require, indeed urge, us to act. So that in this third millennium, which has only just begun, no child on our shared planet, regardless of gender or language or religion, shall be abandoned to hunger or ignorance, or turned away from the feast. This child carries within him the future of our human race. In the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a very long time ago, the kingdom belongs to a child.


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Island of the Doomed Reviewed

Frederic Lindsay, The Scotsman, April 18, 1992


Born in 1923, by the time he was 26, the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman had published four novels, a short story collection, a brilliant book-length report of the condition of Germany in the broken years immediately following defeat, and four plays. in 1954, he killed himself. The extraordinary outburst of creativity between 1945 and 1949, the five fallow years, his suicide – the factual outline alone leaves a sense of mystery and waste.

Influenced, like other Swedish writings of the Forties, by Kafka, his first novel drew upon his experience as a conscript for an unease fable about the encounter between a young soldier and a girl who has killed her mother. His second, Island of the Doomed, appeared only a year later in 1946, and took up again as its theme the existential necessity of the refusal to evade anxiety and guilt.

Seven survivors of a shipwreck are trapped on an island somewhere in the Pacific. There is a beach, a lagoon, a climb through a jungle terrain to a plateau which ends in a cliff dropping sheer to rocks below. Of birds there is a kind of gull, which when it comes close is seen to be blind; there are iguanas; there is some murderous fish that lies in wait at the bottom of the lagoon. There is not a drop of fresh water. In other words, this is like no island that ever was on the face of the earth.

The effect should irritate, arousing that impatience we properly feel at this point in the century towards stage settings for symbolism. There is a moment when a pool turns to blood held under a trembling membrane. It is – dread word – surrealistic; and what could be more dated than that? Or take the cast list of survivors: the runaway bank clerk. the deserter, the stoker, the mother of a deformed child, the fanatical officer, the frigid girl – oh, yes, and the boxing champion in flight from his notoriety. They should be the very stuff of a Hollywood disaster movie.

The difference is that Dagerman is the eighth survivor and doomed; no island was ever more real as an arena of anguish. The difference is that the stereotype of the melancholy Swede is here, awesomely, in real torment. The difference is the poet’s gift of language, and the novelist’s of character creation. Put the two together in the section dealing with the mother with the iguana son and the comparison with Kafka is, for once, permissible. The difference, of course and as always, is that unbridgeable gap between the wishful average and the gifted.”

(bold type/LD)

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Dagerman’s second novel was written right before his journey to Germany in the fall of ’46.  Its structure is bursting at the seams with over-heated, hallucinatory imagery, the unfettered flow of which is unique in his production.  (Dagerman’s reporting from Germany signaled a turn toward more naturalistic, and to many readers, more accessible writing.)

It is a difficult book to read, writes Olof Lagercrantz, Dagerman’s biographer (1). Not because the novel is obscure or hard to understand – its structure is clear. The difficulty to him is the ratched-up tone or intensity. But when the reader’s senses adjust  “… a whole landscape opens up, and one to which he will often long back.”

Simply, the structure is this: Five men and two women are shipwrecked on a deserted island with a hostile environment. There’s no food, no water, no chance of rescue. The reader gets to know this shard of stranded humanity as each character’s life-story is told through the hallucinatory distortions caused by their thirst, hunger, wounded bodies and souls.  The second part of the novel, explores each character’s chosen path on the island in the face of the inevitability of death.

Island of the Doomed is very much a symbolic novel depicting the fearful state of mankind in the wake of the horrors of war, genocide and the entry into the nuclear age. Lagercrantz describes how Dagerman seems to serve as a medium for the anxiety of the times: “The 300 pages seem written in a trance-like state, the pen rarely leaving the paper, one dreamlike image after the other, and when the contact with the spirit world finally breaks, you imagine how the medium prints ‘fini’ on the last page without really knowing what has transpired.” Indeed, Stig Dagerman (the atheist!) told a friend that the novel was the most curious he’s ever written because “I didn’t think when I wrote it but let God do the writing”.

But it’s not only the post-war times that are reflected through this 23-yearold novelist, it is of course also his own complex psychological make-up.  There aren’t really seven different characters on the island, Lagercrantz argues, but one. They all carry variations on guilt, fear and loneliness, themes close to Dagerman’s own:                                                  – Jimmie Baaz/the once successful boxer paralyzed by the expectations put upon him;        – Madame/the guilt-ridden mother of a catatonic child whom she can’t love;                        – The English girl/who has been raped and fears men and intimacy;                                         – Tim Solider/ the ship-hand who can’t escape his sense of servitude and inferiority;         Boy Larus/the soldier who subordinates his self to absurd obedience;                                 – Ca ptain Wilson/who withdraws into a cold heartless shell devoid of humanity; and     Lucas Egmont/the one with a bleeding, guilt-ridden heart who desperately tries to find meaning in the meaningless.

Lagercrantz sees in Lucas Egmont a reflection of Dagerman’s idealistic self, and Egmont is indeed the only one who manages to find some sense of hope and transcendence before succumbing to his death on the island. The second part of the book describes his philosophical journey as he argues against his nemesis the humanoid Captain Wilson.

Dagerman serves as a medium for the postwar times, and that includes channeling its philosophical currents.  When God is dead and life lacks purpose, how do we live? Moreover, how do we live as humans? The perennial ethical problem.

Similar to Camus’ Sisyphus who endlessly pushes a rock up a mountain only to see it roll down again, Dagerman’s Egmont is the absurd hero who transcends his fate by infusing a symbolic act with meaning. As the last person left on the island,  aware that nobody will ever see it, Egmont carves into the white rock his image of a lion – a symbol for the power of solidarity among men not the killing-machine that Captain Wilson wanted.

“And the awareness, simply awareness, the open eyes that fearlessly observe their terrifying situation have to be the guiding star of the self, our only compass that stake out the direction, because without that compass there will no direction.” (p. 283, transl. LD)

Island of the Doomed is a both a document of an anxiety-filled time and an autobiography. “The strictly personal and intimate melded together with the general and all-concerning. It all came together in this book and that is why, Lagercrantz says, the force of life runs so strongly through its pages.” 


(1) Olof Lagercrantz, Stig Dagerman, Norstedts, Stockholm 1985

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Writer’s Role: To Build Bridges And Break Glass

“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 will be 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 gleam an arc, far more daring that I ever hoped for. Finally, there is the problem of the setting. 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. “                                – Stig Dagerman from Essäer och andra texter (translation by Lo Dagerman)

This credo of Dagerman’s opens Lotta  Lotass’ book about his writing (Freedom Conveyed, 2002). She writes: At the center of Dagerman’s aesthetics lie conveyance and communication. The concern is to communicate to the reader an attitude towards one’s own existence and towards the world at large. The challenge lies in connecting the text with the reader and, by means of an active dialogue, effect critical thinking and aware-ness of one’s own and others’ situation and to indicate ways to change it. The purpose of the communication, and which will decide its value, is its ability to change and liberate.

Dagerman’s yearning for liberation, initially in political terms then increasingly more of a psychological nature, drives him to write.  Striving to keep emotionally open and vulnerable as he creates,  Dagerman’s texts often bring him and the reader into complex, anxiety-ridden territory. This brought him many critics during his lifetime: not only was his writing not seen as being uplifting, supporting a striving toward happiness and harmony in sheltered postwar Sweden, but his texts were also perceived as difficult to understand.

Dagerman raged against this harmony-ideal and an unwillingness to look at the human condition in the wake of World War II:                                                                                                          “By understood you mean that a reader should be able to grasp it without any strain of thought, similarly to a piece of advertisement or a neon commercial. “                                “It has been shown, unfortunately, that quiet contentment has a certain tendency to degenerate into belching and over-eating. And in a world full of happiness-seeking belchers, the most important thing of all may be a sense of being torn apart and the ability to feel fear. That’s why I want to pull down all the chicken-wire put up around our fear, open up the gates for the snakes in the snake sanctuaries, and put broken glass in the bathtubs of all those who claim to have sought and found contentment, because theirs is a cruel occupation in a world where there are so many abandoned people. “                                 Stig Dagerman from The Snake


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To Dialogue with Dagerman

stigisland3There is nothing like it in Swedish literature. Its closest relative is Kafka or Camus.” Pontus Stenshall, Director, on Dagerman’s novel The Island of the Doomed

Moment Theater, located in the outskirts of Stockholm, recently had the world premiere of their staging of Dagerman’s The Island of the Doomed.  The performance is an interpretation and a reading and read-aloud and a bringing to life of Dagerman’s novel from 1946, as well as a coming to terms with and a conversation about parts of this daunting text. Four actors step in and out of the novel’s seven wayward characters who are stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck. These character-shifts are indicated to us who watch, by the actors’ putting-on and taking-off the shoes of the different characters.

Director Pontus Stenshäll has sensitively responded to Dagerman’s offer to launch a dialogue – a conversation that with crushing certainty leads to the loneliness of man and the painful realization about how difficult it is to acquire a sense of personal freedom that doesn’t intrude on the freedom of others.

It is in one of the seven and seventy non-descript suburbs it will happen. The doomed seven crawl up onto an island in a sea of texts and talk to us for a while. At Moment Theater, we hear the calls of those seven individuals, who died in a novel sixty-two years ago, and we want to respond to them. Boy Larus. Madame. The Captain. Tim Solider. Lucas Egmont. The English girl. Jimmie Baaz. Those were the seven who died in the text and therefore can be revived time and time again to live among us who remain – and  who are still reading and listening.

Dagerman’s novel The Island of the Doomed describes seven stranded individuals who during a few endlessly short days and hours touch on, provoke and connect seven states-of-mind: The thirst of dawn; The paralysis of morning; The hunger of the day; The sorrow at sunset; The obedience of twilight; The longing of evening; and The fires of night.

These seven states-of-mind come together, not peacefully but to fight about what symbol or statement should be carved into the white rock – a rock that the seven shipwrecked find in the sand just before dehydration, hunger, heat and the lack of love will extinguish the last human life on the island. Lion or not a lion? A life and death struggle ensues about what Symbol to choose for the Arts or Meaning or Life or Truth or Existence, At the crossroads of questioning and listening, Dagerman poses the quandary about the road ahead.

The ensemble of Moment Theater responds to the author that they so very much want to understand and communicate the wealth they’ve found in the novel. In front of a full house, the actors discuss the text: how they enter into it, walk around and catch sight of its richness. The novel about the seven doomed individuals that has been called wild and crazy, modernistic, a difficult read and remarkable, becomes what I believe was Dagerman’s wish: a text to argue with and keep alive through re-readings, read-alouds, stagings and, who knows, maybe the time has come for a film version.

I can hear the actors at Moment Theater talking directly to the author:   You wrote this story in such a haste and with such energy and determination, happiness even. With seriousness AND humor. Although not many people have noticed the humor. We have laughed as we have cried at that which you wrote half a year or so after the end of WWII. You were sitting on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, in a writing hut infused with ghost of August Strindberg. We heard that you had to care for your oldest son who just had started to walk. As you became more and more engrossed in your writing, your son started to tear pieces of wallpaper off the wall until he lay parts of it bare exposing a surface that long ago had surrounded Strindberg. That is how they talk with each other: Authors who don’t live in the same time period. That’s how they talk with each other: Authors and actors and audience. Intense listening on-stage; rapt attention among the audience. Four actors in a sea of white balloons. Music. Improvisation. Read-alouds. Ecstatic outbursts! The four actors singing “Because” by the Beatles. Just because.

I’m tapping the keyboard to capture the feeling of having been right there, or now being here, in a conversation about how we should be able to civilize or train ourselves: to understand each other; to irritate each other without having to fight. Moment Theater doesn’t give us their interpretation of The Island of the Doomed to be admired or rejected. They are instead continuing an inquiry about how we should inhabit our place next to each other on earth. Keen listening, compassion and dialogue are what their performance is all about. Through all its pain, melancholy, grief and humor, their world premiere, just a week or so before Spring Equinox, offers hope. This hope is grounded in our joint vulnerability and universal thirst and longing for consolation. When we use the word “our” and start to engage our neighbor, our  “civilization” work has begun. Keeping each other company and our dialogue alive become possible islands for survival in stormy seas.

I  was much moved by the invitation to the island of the doomed in Stockholm, and rejoiced at hearing the beats of the world’s heart. In all his texts, in spite of his pessimism and difficulties, Dagerman offers a way out through dialogue. A timeless journey where words written down some fifty years ago are brought to life through the bodies and voices of four actors and enliven the room between them and us; and we who also quietly partake in the conversation, this evening in a drab suburb, experience a heightened sense of being alive.

We who are there have for some hours escaped our cages of loneliness. At the end of the evening: A mutual somewhat embarrassed longing, from this Stockholm outpost, to participate in the building of the World. Surely, Dagerman must have intended this text to be experienced on a chilly evening with the promise of Spring Equinox around the corner. The seven on the island who died and then were resurrected out of the sea of texts, will continue to live with us, to be our consolation through the thirst of dawn and the hunger of the day and the longing of evening.

“/…/Man’s fate is sealed everywhere and at all times, and one individual’s significance for another is immeasurable. I believe in the solidarity, the compassion and love as man’s last white shirts. Highest of all virtues, I put that form of love that is called forgiveness. I believe that man’s thirst for forgiveness is not possible to slake, not because of any sin of heavenly or devilish origin, but because we all from our very beginnings are confronted by a merciless state of the world that we can affect less than we wish./…/”

Quotation From “Do We Believe in Man?” 1950; Stig Dagerman, Essays and Texts, Norstedts, 1990

Bengt Soderhall

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Anita on Stig

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.

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