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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To Stig’s Memory Nov 4, 2014

by Lo Dagerman – preface to Chilean Mar y Tierra’s anniversary publication.


Everything significant that I experience, all that fills my life with a sense of wonder—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 in the face of beauty—all of this occurs beyond the bounds of time.
– SD, “Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable”, 1952. 

His text is an anthem to freedom, says Christian Olivier about Stig Dagerman’s  essay Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable. Olivier is the singer of the French group Têtes raides that in 2008 toured France with a recital of Stig’s text set to reggae. It became quite a sensation. Stig Dagerman wrote this essay when he was twenty-nine, two years before his suicide in 1954.

The theme of freedom runs through all of Stig’s writing. His search for it. In its various shapes and forms.

In the beginning of his career, it was primarily about political freedom. Stig became an Anarcho-Syndicalist at seventeen and cultural editor of The Worker, the movement’s daily, at twenty-two.  Even today, his political commentary in the form of satirical verse is well-known in Sweden and often put to music. Stig advocated a decentralized form of socialism where the individual would experience both influence and accountability.

I believe that man’s natural enemy is the mega-organization because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man, /it/ restricts his possibilities to show solidarity and love and instead turns him into an agent of power, that for the moment may be directed against others, but ultimately is directed against himself.         – SD, Do we believe in man?”, 1950.

The once powerful Anarcho-Syndicalist movement lay crushed in the ruins of World War II.  Communism with its centralized power structure and infringement on human rights was the winner on the left.  Stig held on to what he called “the politics of the impossible”, the importance of a higher ideal however utopian.  He refused the binary option between Capitalism and Communism forced by the Cold War. Existential philosophy attracted him. He sought solace in Camus’ Sisyphus who, forever rolling his rock up the hill, extracts meaning out of meaninglessness.

Disillusioned by postwar politics, Stig went deeper into the inner aspects of freedom. He himself had psychological wounds that beset him. His mother had deserted him at birth, a fact that created in him feelings of rejection and loneliness.  Not being worthy of love. When Stig could write, the wound hurt less. He even made it his business to lay bare, investigate and analyze his emotions.  As a way through and forward, toward transcendence and freedom.

For five intense years Stig wrote novels, journalism, plays, short stories, poems and essays at a fast pace. Trying to meet ever-rising expectations, most of all probably the high bar he himself had set.  He travelled around the globe. He fell in love. He remarried. Chasing consolation. But at 27, Stig had run himself into the ground. Beset by a writer’s block and depression that fuelled each other in a downward cycle.

To write was Stig’s door to freedom. Now he felt that door closing.  Not knowing why. Our Need for Consolation is insatiable is Stig’s analysis of what is happening to him. Why are his thoughts hooked on suicide?  Where can he find himself at peace “resting like a stone in the sand”? His desire for life recharged?

The text is an anthem to freedom. Stig never ended his search for that.  And, also this time he was successful. He wrote himself free.  Through his meditation on our universal need for consolation, he himself could make out a glimmer of hope.

But Stig could not hold on by himself.  His depression was deep-seated and no effective help available. He took his life on November 4, 1954.

Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable is a unique document even today when self-disclosure about depression and suicidal ideation is more common. Translated into many languages, it has become a text that offers inspiration and consolation to others in search of healing.

Stig – you wished that your words would “touch the world’s heart”. They do!

http://www.amazon.com/Our-Need-Consolation-Stellan-Skarsgard/dp/B00D5TIQW2

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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.

Lo

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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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Reading A BURNT CHILD

PURITY IS A HARD TASK MASTER by Brita Green, Ph.D.

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

ANGUISH PLAYED OUT IN A SURREAL LANDSCAPE

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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Reading ISLAND OF THE DOOMED

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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