Dagerman

STIG DAGERMAN

”I seek consolation as a hunter tracking pray.”

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ISLAND OF THE DOOMED: “75 years ago, Dagerman wrote a book for our times …”

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Stig Dagerman’s novel Island of the Doomed is published in Russia, 75 years after its first release. Not surprising at all, writes Bengt Söderhäll, culture correspondent of the Swedish daily Arbetarbladet, as he tells the story of Dagerman’s book about humanity in distress. (article translated by Lo Dagerman)

“Dagerman’s novel about a stranded humanity ‘is a novel for our times’, says Natalia Press, Russian translator.  Indeed, humankind finds itself on an island facing extinction, and although the population in Dagerman’s tale is very small, problems related to climate  – both natural and interpersonal – present haunting challenges.

The Russian edition of Island of the Doomed is published by Izdatelstvo Ivana Limbakha in Saint Petersburg. It has since the late 90s been dedicated to the publication of top-rated literature that channels humanity’s yearning for freedom. The release of Stig Dagerman’s novel at this point in time is likely related to the global Zeitgeist, where nature and culture and humanistic gains are threatened by the way we humans interact and  inhabit the planet.

Natalia Press is not new to Dagerman. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on ‘Stig Dagerman and escapism’, that included a translation from Thousand Years with God.

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Dagerman’s  75-year old novel will now reach also Russian readers and maybe it’ll be even more current than it was in the devastation that followed WWII where the focus was on reconstruction. Island of the Doomed, released in May 2021, arrives in Russia almost exactly 35 years after the disaster at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, that forced the instant realization that we all inhabit the same planet, live on the same island.

Dagerman penned his novel in 1946, one year after the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their horror, combined with the atrocities and devastation of WWII, for a young generation set the stage for a fear-filled future. He was 23 – a writer who just the year before had made his debut with the novel The Snake. 

There is a central section in Stig Dagerman’s novel where the doomed people of the island will have to decide about what they wish to leave behind. What trace to leave – regardless of whether it will ever be seen by anybody. They all have agreed on one thing: They will carve the image of a lion into a white rock. But what should it look like? A carnivore at the throat of its prey, or the king of animals running free?

Island of the Doomed initially had the working title “The Struggle for the Lion”, and was expected to be completed by July 1946. It ended up with a different title and more wide-ranging content over 340 pages. Dagerman commenced work on the novel during spring, and then returned to it early summer. He and his family, along with poet-friend Werner Aspenström and his family, then lived together at Kymmendö island in the Stockholm archipelago. Aspenström followed the work’s progression up close: “The writing of the novel slowed to a standstill, and reams of manuscript ready for copy-edit started to arrive from the publisher, probably to urge the writer on /…/ One day Stig Dagerman disappeared only to return the following day pale, exhausted, with an inward smile, after a sitting of fourteen hours without sleep, and most likely without food, having completed the last part of the novel that amounted to at least 60 printed pages.” (Aspenström, Sommar, 1968)

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Presenting his finished work in October 1946, Dagerman commented on his choice of an island as the setting for the book:The inhabited island has the advantage and attraction that the writer doesn’t risk any accusation that he’s been describing the wrong island. Furthermore, in the days before the book about this island pile up on bookstore counters, he can live in the hope that what he ‘wants to convey’ will mean more to the reader than the unknown wall onto which he has let his thoughts project. It is, of course, a symbolic island, if one by symbolic refers to the necessary compression that the world’s suffering must undergo to make it possible to be viewed, comprehended, and struggled with at a manageable level.”

In the preface to the 2010 Swedish edition of Island of the Doomed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, 2008 Stig Dagerman Award winner and Nobel laureate (in that order), writes: “Here is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable novels of the twentieth century …/…/  It is – as will be all his novels – a text loaded with his own experiences, his rebellions, his failures, but above all of it is replete with damnation and despair, a rejection of even the smallest human comfort.  Is it an anarchistic novel through and through? Possibly, as it denies all progress achieved through violence and shuts itself off in the closed universe of an island, at once stalag, military camp, penal colony, and insane asylum.”

A novel for our time, a novel for the Anthropocene period, a novel to read to further thought and action about what we wish to leave behind. About our tracks. What we’ll carve into the white cliff.

A few years after Island of the Doomed, Stig Dagerman seems to comment on that fearful island where extinction only is a matter of time. But this time, in a poem, he brings all of humanity inside to a safe place:

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Raise all the world’s ladders on top of each other

Let all the world’s towers unite into one

How heavenward my ceiling is tonight

In my hall all the stars are lit.

/…/

you who walk the earth: you wander indoors

you who stand on a mountain: you’re in your own room

you who see a star: you gaze at your own ceiling

you who adore life: you love the timber of this house

you who die at sea: you fall asleep indoors.”

Article by Bengt Söderhäll,  free-lance writer who always is in conversation with Stig Dagerman

Stellan Skarsgård on THE MAKING OF MAN

There is so much in THE MAKING OF A MAN (documentary, 48 min, 2019) that greatly interests me. As an avid fan of Stig Dagerman’s writing, I could listen to Lo for hours talking about him. But I also appreciate the central question in the film about the meaning of a hero, and how facts get whitewashed to fabricate heroes, as was the case in post WWII France. The film uses Stig’s play Marty’s Shadow as a jump-off point to make the viewer reflect on a great many issues like parent and sibling relationships, politics, courage and manliness.

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Having acted in the play, I know it very well, and in my mind the brief excerpts in the documentary can’t do it full justice. I have always regarded Gabriel as my hero. The intellectual man who is met not only by a mother who doesn’t understand him, but by a whole world blind to him. To me, he is neither a nerd nor a youth on the spectrum. To me, he represents Stig. A man driven to a final desperate action, maybe more symbolic than real, but it’s not committed by a madman.

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I believe that Stig’s writing is more important than ever. His unrelenting belief in truth-telling and authenticity, and the role of the individual to take a stand. But the truth, as he well knew, is a complicated thing, full of contradictions, and one where simply following emotions and gut feelings will blow you off course. To read Stig is for me a constant reminder that we must not be fooled by myths that divide humanity into binary good or evil, but  we must always look at humans in their imperfect complexity. Ecce Homo.

Stellan Skarsgård, Stockholm October 20, 2020

VIEW Stellan reading Stig in  OUR NEED FOR CONSOLATION (short film by Dan Levy Dagerman, 20 min, 2012)

THE MAKING OF A MAN – New Doc on Festival Circuit!

LA Official Selection (B)

Announcing the September 2020 world premiere, at the Los Angeles Lift-Off Film Festival,  of a film that is a labor of love!! Told across time and space (postwar France & Sweden, present day United States), THE MAKING OF A MAN creatively intercuts interviews, archival footage and segments of the classic, searing and brutal play about toxic masculinity, penned in 1947 by legendary Swedish writer Stig Dagerman.

The play, “Marty’s Shadow”, was inspired by people Stig met during a visit to Paris, a city reeling in the wake of Nazi occupation. It follows the chilling trail of a young man, bullied for being a coward, who searches for a way to become a ‘real’ man. (See the end of this post for links and details to access the film, the play – and the bookThe Writer and the Refugee, which tells the story of what happened in Stig’s 1947 encounter with German-Jewish refugee Etta Federn.)

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In 2017, seventy years after the play was written, it has its American premiere at the August Strindberg Repertory Theatre, off-Broadway in New York. As Stig’s daughter, Lo Dagerman (who was three when Stig died) interviews the cast, she discovers that it has struck a contemporary nerve. Jimi Stanton, who movingly portrays her father’s struggling protagonist, draws on the trauma experienced by his veteran brother in Iraq and Afghanistan. The play’s director, Whitney Aronson, is struck by how the inner life of the Jimi’s bullied character speaks directly to a United States plagued by mass shootings.

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THE MAKING OF A MAN explores  heroism and cowardice, and what it means to be truly courageous, through the lens of four characters. The playwright; his protagonist;  the lead actor; the young French refugee who was the play’s inspiration – each character wrestles  in a distinctive way with the question of what it means to be a man.  Sharing their journeys, the film’s audience comes away with new insight into a profound challenge of our times.

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Lichtman on Wedding Worries

Johannes Lichtman

Johannes Lichtman (Such Good Work, Simon & Schuster) reviews Wedding Worries. Excerpts from Tin House Winter Reading 2018 Issue 78. Read full review here

 […] Wedding Worries is a polyphonic novel that takes place over twenty-four hours surrounding a country wedding. At the time I first read it, Wedding Worries had yet to be translated into English (though revered in Sweden and hailed in France as the “Nordic Rimbaud” and in Italy as the “Swedish Camus,” Dagerman has yet to break through in America), but the novel was recently released in a highly readable English translation by Paul Norlén with Lo Dagerman. The story centers on Hildur, who is in love and secretly pregnant, but whose beloved has asked her to wait a few years for him to make some money. Instead, she has agreed to marry the wealthy and vulgar butcher from town to avoid the fate of her sister, who had a child out of wedlock and is now stuck on her parents’ farm with her son, bitter and ostracized. Like most of Dagerman’s books, the novel is marked by brutality, but amidst the violence and toil, it’s also a very funny book, populated by a large cast of characters firing one-liners and callbacks.

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As the story begins, we see a host of people who are stuck: Hildur’s father is stuck in the attic, a recluse scared of the world. “Slow and steady—that’s how God made snails, or whoever it was who made them,” he muses from the room he never leaves. “But whoever made them, he did it well. For what does a snail need speed for? Whatever he treads on is his. Wherever he turns in this world his building rests on its own ground.” Hildur’s mother is stuck watching her favorite daughter leave home for an unworthy husband. And Hildur is stuck in the pregnancy that’s necessitating her marriage.

My own stuckness was less severe than that of any of the characters (while also more severe, since I was a real person). But the thing that separates Wedding Worries from the darkness of Dagerman’s early books (“early” meaning the ones written three or four years prior), and the thing that made it so important for me at the time, is that the characters find ways to get unstuck. […]

A central theme in Dagerman is the importance of free will, even if the action the individual chooses is only symbolic. As he slid deeper into writer’s block, Dagerman tried to convince himself that writing didn’t matter as long as he still had his freedom: “My possibilities are limited only if I try to quantify them according to the number of words or books that I turn out before I die. But who demands an accounting of this sort?” The world, of course, demands an accounting. At the time I picked up Wedding Worries, I wasn’t just waiting to hear if someone would pay me for my words; I was waiting for validation from the world. But as Dagerman argued, as much to himself as anyone else, the individual is the sum of her choices, not her achievements. Even if no one publishes your book, I thought while reading Dagerman, you still chose to write it. […]

The case of [Khashoggi]

The following excerpt is from a speech by Stig Dagerman given at a rally in 1947 to protest the murder of Bulgarian opposition leader Nicola Petkov. In the translation below, Petkov’s name has been replaced by that of Jamal Khashoggi.

“… Each and everyone who takes the life of an opponent attacks not only this individual, but through him or her all opponents, and still more: the core of what it means to be in opposition: to exercise one’s free will, free thought and freedom of expression.

By killing [Khashoggi], [MBS] and his cohorts didn’t only take the life of [Jamal Khashoggi] the man, but of the freedoms to think, believe and act accorded to any self-respecting individual – those very freedoms that many of us, deemed insufficiently “realistic” or “real-politically minded”, hold as invaluable to our way of life.  This means that everybody who views these freedoms as non-negotiable, must protest the murder of [Jamal Khashoggi] not as an isolated gruesome deed by a distant country of little consequence, but as a violent act committed against ourselves and our beliefs in human rights.”

From Stig Dagerman, “Om fallet Petkov”, 1947.  (Translation by Lo Dagerman)Nicola Petkov

Amos Oz: Recipient of Stig Dagerman Award 2018 – Acceptance Remarks

Dear Members of the Jury of the Stig Dagerman Prize. Dear representatives of the Älvkarleby Municipality, my dear publishers and editors, Dear Friends, Dear Guests:

How I wish I could be with you today and visit Stig Dagerman’s Älvkarleby. Thank all of you personally for bestowing this wonderful prize on my works. Personal circumstances prevent me from joining you today, but I am proud and happy for my beloved friend and former publisher/editor, my partner in the “The Order of the Teaspoon” project, Camilla Nagler, to be collecting the prize on my behalf and convey the following message to you.

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In the course of his painfully short life, Stig Dagerman divided his creative energy between writing prose, poetry and essays. He was a man of fascinating contrasts: He expressed very strong social and political views, but at the same time he also conveyed skepticism, doubts, irony, ambivalence and deep compassion for human weaknesses. He believed in certain progressive, even revolutionary solutions, but most of the time he seemed to be much more fascinated by existential problems than by solutions: He was more intrigued by paradoxes of human nature than didactically advocating a specific course of socio-political action. In this respect I feel deep kinship with Stig Dagerman. I share his insight about the fact that “our need for consolation is insatiable”.SD Award Poster 2018

SD Award Poster 2018

So far I have only read one of Dagerman’s novels: “A Burnt Child”, (translated into English by Benjamin Mier-Cruz). Having lost my own mother to suicide when I was 12 years old, I found a deep sense of kinship with this novel’s young protagonist: The whirlpool of pain and rage and loneliness and self-hatred in this novel is very, very familiar to me in more than one way.

Moreover: the way Dagerman combines intimate experience with universal, social and existential problems, the way he combines sexuality and morality, a search for social justice and a very private soul-searching, the way his anarchistic, playful sense of humor interweaves with utter idealistic seriousness, all of this is close to me, close to my own life, close to much of my thinking and to some of my feelings; Close in some ways, to what I have been trying to do in my own writing.

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Many times in my life I have been called a traitor by some of my own people, by some of my own countrymen. At times of a deadly conflict, many people tend to see reality only in black and white. I have tried, for almost 60 years, to present a perspective of moral complexity, sometimes even moral ambiguity, sometimes even acid criticism of my government and my people. For many years I have tried to present the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians Arabs as a tragic clash between Right and Right; Some other times I presented it as a devastating collision between Wrong and Wrong. I have been advocating for more than fifty years now a painful compromise between Jew and Arab, between Israeli and Palestinian, trying to persuade my readers that compromise is the only alternative to violence, and that the opposite of compromise is not integrity or idealism: The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.

In my novels as well as in my essays and articles I try to deal with various kinds of fanaticism : religious fundamentalism, ideological or chauvinistic zealotry, even puritan radicalism. I try to point out some possible antidotes to fanaticism such as a sense of humor (especially the ability to laugh at oneself) such as curiosity (the ability to see ourselves the way others may see us; The ability to ask ourselves: “What if I were him? What if I were her? What if I were them?”)

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I am a restless storyteller from a small country plagued these days by selfish nationalism, extremism, a country which is sometimes living on a cloud of self-righteousness. However, I am aware of the fact that my wrongdoing country exists in an extremely hostile, militant, violent region.

As I watch Israeli society, Middle East turbulences, and an almost universal retreat toward various kinds of fundamentalism – I still believe that different people may find the ability to coexist, even to display a degree of empathy toward their opponents and rivals. I still raise my voice against injustice and against hatred. I still believe that simply to shout “Fire!”, whenever you see fire, is not enough. You must try to put the fire off. Even if what one can do is very limited, it is still significant. Each of us ought to do as much as she or he can. It is in this spirit that I humbly accept the honor you are bestowing on me today. Thank you. Thank all of you. May tolerance, peace, and compassion prevail.

Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable … (film text excerpts)

Original title in Swedish: Vårt behov av tröst är omättligt … (1952). The following excerpts are narrated by Stellan Skarsgård in the short film Our Need for Consolation (2012) by Dan Levy Dagerman. Text selection and screen adaptation by Lo Dagerman, Dan Levy Dagerman and Brian Levy based on a draft translation by Steven Hartman. 

I have no belief and because of that I can never be a happy man. Because happy men should never fear that their lives drift meaninglessly toward the certainty of death. I have inherited neither a god nor any fixed point on this earth from where I can attract a god’s attention. Nor have I inherited the skeptic’s well-hidden rage, the rationalist’s barren mind, or the atheist’s burning innocence. But I would not dare to cast a stone at those who believe in what I doubt, much less at those who idolize doubt as if that too were not surrounded by darkness. That stone would strike me instead, for there is one thing of which I am firmly convinced: our need for consolation is insatiable.

I seek out consolation as a hunter tracking prey. Wherever I glimpse a sudden flash in the woods, I shoot. Usually, empty air is all I hit. Yet, sometimes, the target drops right at my feet. The breath of consolation is as fleeting, I know, as a breeze sifting through the treetops – even so I seize it.

What is it then that I am holding in my arms?

Since I am alone: a lover, or another lone drifter. Since I am a poet: a bow of words whose tension fills me with both joy and dread. Since I am a prisoner: a sudden glimpse of freedom. Since I am threatened by death: a warm, living creature its heart beating scornfully. As I fear the sea: a foothold of unyielding granite rising just above the tide.

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But there are also consolations that come to me like uninvited guests and fill my room with their vulgar whispers: I am your desire – lust after everyone! I am your talent – abuse me as you would yourself! I am your hunger for pleasure – only the one who tastes lives fully! I am your solitude – despise humankind! I am your longing for death – cut!  

[ … ] No one can count the times when we may need consolation. And no one knows when the shadow may fall.  [ … ] My life is a balancing act haunted by two opposing forces: On the one side: a greedy appetite for excess, and on the other: a cheap bitterness that only feeds on itself. But I refuse to choose between orgy and abstinence.  [ … ]

I have no philosophy in which I can move like a fish in water or a bird on the wing. All I have is an endless struggle, every second of my life, between false consolations that only add to my feeling of powerlessness and deepen my despair, and true consolations that bring me momentary freedom. I should probably say the true consolation, because for me only one exists: the one that allows me to know myself as a free human being, within my own boundaries, untouchable. [ … ]

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I can walk on the beach and suddenly sense in the endless tides of the sea and in the endless chase of the wind, the terrifying challenge that eternity poses to my existence. [ … ] I can sit before a fire in the safest of rooms and suddenly sense death all around: it’s the fire, in every sharp object at hand, in the weight of the ceiling and the mass of the walls, in the water, the snow, the heat, and in my blood. [ … ]

I can fill all my white paper with the most beautiful combinations of words that light up in my mind. Since I long for confirmation that my life is not meaningless, that I am not alone on this earth, I collect my words into a book and give it to the world. In return the world gives me money and fame and silence. But what do I care for money and what do I care if I contribute to the evolution of literature – I only care about that which I never receive: confirmation that my words have touched the world’s heart. [ … ]

We all have our masters. I am such a slave to my talent that I dare not use it for fear of discovering that it has been lost. I am such a slave to my reputation that I hardly dare write a line. When depression finally sets in, I become a slave to that as well. My greatest ambition becomes to hold on to it; my greatest desire becomes to feel that my only worth lies in what I fear that I have lost: the ability to squeeze beauty out of my despair, anxiety and failings. In bitter joy I long to see my houses fall into ruins and myself snowed under, forgotten.

But depression has seven nested boxes, and in the seventh lies a knife, a razor, a vial of poison, deep water and a leap from a tall building. Finally, I become a slave to these instruments of death. They stalk me like a pack of wild dogs, or am I the dog following them? And then it appears to me that suicide is the sole proof of human freedom.

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But from a direction still unknown to me, comes the miracle of liberation. It could occur on the beach, where the same eternity that so recently awoke my fear, now witnesses the birth of my freedom. What is the miracle made of? Simply: my realization that no power, and no person, has the right to make such demands on me that my desire for life disappears. For without that, what can exist?

As I stand by the sea, I can learn from the sea. No one can demand of the sea that it bears all our boats, or of the wind that it continually fills our sails. Likewise no one has the right to demand of me that my life should be captive to performing only certain tasks. Not duty above all, but life! I, like everyone else, must have the right to step back from that working mass of humanity called the earth’s population, and experience myself as a separate being.

Only at that moment, I can stand free of the harsh facts of life that gave rise to my despair, and acknowledge that the sea and the wind will indeed outlast me, and that eternity is not concerned about my fate. But who asks me to care about eternity? My life is short only if I place it on Time’s chopping block. My possibilities are limited only if I count them in the number of words or books that I may turn out before I die. But who asks me to count?

[ … ] Everything significant that I experience, all that lends my life a sense of wonder: a 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 when faced with beauty– all of this occurs beyond the bounds of time. Beauty is the same whether we take it in for only a second or for a span of a hundred years. It does not matter. [ … ] And so I lift the burden of time from my shoulders, and with that also the demand to perform. My life is nothing that should be measured. Neither a buck’s leap nor the sunrise is a performance. A human life is not a performance either but a growing toward perfection. That which is perfect does not strive to achieve. It works while at rest. It would be absurd to say that the sea exists to carry armadas and contain dolphins. It does these things, of course, but with its freedom intact. And it would be absurd to say that people exist for anything else but to live. Certainly, humans feed machines, or write books, but they could as easily do something else. All the while, maintaining freedom. Like every other part of creation, man is an end in himself – resting like a stone in the sand. [ … ]Stig Dagerman in the Stockholm archipelago, 1951

Stig Dagerman in the Stockholm archipelago, 1951

Yet, it is not in my power to constantly remain turned toward the sea and know its freedom as mine. There is a time when I have to turn toward land and meet the organizers of my oppression. And there I find that humans have created forms for their lives that seem stronger than themselves. With all my newly won freedom I cannot crush these forms, only groan under their weight. [ … ]

One kind of freedom, I realize, is forever gone. It is the freedom that comes with owning your own element. The fish has its own, the bird its own, the land creature has its own. The human being, however, moves with the peril of a stranger in all the elements. Thoreau still had his Walden. Today, where is the forest in which human beings can live in freedom, outside the hardened molds of society? I have to reply: nowhere. Today, if I want to live freely, it has to be within these walls. The world is stronger than I. I have nothing with which to meet its power other than myself. But on the other hand, that is everything. As long as I do not let myself be defeated, I too am a power. And my power is tremendous as long as I have the strength of my words with which to challenge the world, because those who use words to build prisons cannot measure up to those who use them to build freedom. But on the day when all that remains to defend my integrity is my silence, my power will be boundless, because no axe can cut the silence that breathes.

This is my sole consolation. I know that lapses into hopelessness will be many and deep but the memory of the miracle of liberation carries me like on a wing toward the dizzying goal: towards a consolation that is better than a consolation and greater than a philosophy – a reason to live.

Stig’s entire essay in a translation by Steven Hartman was published in Little Star #5, 2014 

“Wedding Worries and Other Upsets”

In this essay from 1950, Stig reflects on the writing of his novel Wedding Worries and his creative process at large

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Stig with his grandparents at the farm ca 1931

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.

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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.

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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.First English edition

First English edition

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.

Samoa

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.*

SF 45

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.

stig reading paper

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.

stigsmile-222x300

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)

In Defense of the Politics of the Impossible – The Case of World Citizens for Peace

La Politica dell’Impossibile, a well-received recent Italian collection of Stig Dagerman’s political articles (Iperborea, 2016). The following article from the collection is on The World Citizen movement for peace spearheaded by American Garry Davis.

“Politics has been called the art of the possible. It is an apt epithet because that which is possible is what is the most reduced and circumscribed of all. So putting your faith in what is possible implies an upfront censorship of all those possibilities that risk and hope and dreams can generate. In the world of the possible, humanity is nothing but a captive chained to the galley of dread and indifference. Against the world of the possible, humanity is as powerless as against death.Garry Davis, Dean of the One World Movement

Sol Gareth “Garry” Davis (July 27, 1921 – July 24, 2013) was an international peace activist who created the World Passport, a travel document originally based on Article 13(2), Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on the concept of world citizenship.

The enduring merit of Garry Davis is that he has revealed to us, anew, the existence also of the art of the impossible, an art form that at this moment probably is the most critical of them all. It is important not the least as an effective remedy for the fear and passivity that usually accompanies too long a sojourn in the world of the possible. I know that Garry Davis has met with much skepticism, even among his own supporters: What, really, are his practical achievements?

But what do they mean by “practical”? Personally, as a libertarian socialist, I think that what Davis has accomplished is enough: He has managed to get masses of people to doubt the art of the possible and to believe, or at least harbor the hope, that not only politicians but also individual citizens have veto right over those questions of life and death that so far has been regarded as solely being within the purview of states, power constellations and governments. I believe that the discovery of the existence of this veto power, and the necessity for it to exist, is one practical outcome of Davis’ work as good as any. Another is that it has inspired hordes of young European writers to more carefully than ever clarify their own positions, and therefore also that of each individual, in the world of the possible. Maybe this doesn’t sound like much, but it is still a great deal simply because formulating one’s position is a precursor to action.

Garry Davis, supported by Camus, Sartre among others, in French court.

But if by practical achievements they mean a concrete shift in the political situation, it is natural to remain skeptic to Mr. Davis’ peace movement. The Iron Curtain has not been lifted one iota, and the agent that previously was the most important for peace, the international labor movement, remains just as divided, thoroughly politicized and foreign to its old slogan: General Strike Against War. But nothing of this, I think, should prevent Davis’ supporters from prevailing, well aware of the fact that this is just a start. We cannot know if it ever will become more than a beginning, but that should not matter. Neither should we think it therefore insignificant, because it is never meaningless to prefer the impossible to the possible. The one thing that is meaningless is to resign yourself to the latter. “

— Stig Dagerman (1949)

translation by Lo Dagerman

Do We Have Faith in Humankind?

— Stig Dagerman, 1950. His response to a magazine question posed to six authors.

To speak of humanity is to speak of oneself. In his relentless indictment of humanity at large, the individual himself is a part. Only death can separate him from his charges. So even as judge, he will always be found on the bench of the accused.

Nobody can claim that humanity is in the process of decay without having observed the same putrid symptoms in himself. Nobody can say that humanity is evil without he himself having been part of evil deeds. There is no such thing as unshackled observation. He who lives is the life-long prisoner of humanity and contributes, willingly or unwillingly, to an increase or decrease of the human inventory of happiness and misfortune, greatness and humiliation, hope and despondence.

And so I dare to venture, the fate of humanity is at stake everywhere and at all times, and the responsibility of one life for another is immeasurable. I believe in solidarity, compassion and love as humanity’s last white shirts of hope. Above all the other virtues, I hold the form of love called forgiveness. I believe that an individual’s thirst for forgiveness is impossible to slake, not due to some original sin traced to heaven or hell, but to the fact that we from our very beginnings are confronted by a merciless world upon which we can affect less change than we wish.

But here is the tragedy in our situation: while I am convinced of the existence of human virtue, I doubt the human capacity to halt the holocaust we all fear. And the doubt is there because it is not humanity who makes decisions about the world’s ultimate fate but political blocs, constellations of power, clusters of states that speak a different language, that of force.Design includes entire text and is by Jan Landvist and Swedish Stig Dagerman Society

Design includes entire text and is by Jan Landvist and Swedish Stig Dagerman Society

I believe that the natural enemy of mankind is the mega-organization. It robs the individual of his vital responsibility for his fellow man. It shuts down his propensity for solidarity and love, instead making him a stakeholder in a power that seems directed at others, but ultimately is directed at himself. Because what is power other than the feeling of not having to pay for the consequences of evil deeds with your own life but with those of others?

If, at last, I were to declare the futile dream that I like many others carry, it would be this one: that as many people as possible will realize the need to break away from hateful and inhumane power blocs, power churches and power organizations, not to mount new structures but to weaken the sway of life-destroying forces in the world. Such a realization may be humanity’s only chance to relate as one fellow human being to another, to once again become one another’s friend and source of joy.

Translation by Lo Dagerman and Max Levy

 

Translators’ note: In his last sentence, Stig alludes to “Man is the joy of man” (No. 47) from Havamal, Norse poems from the Viking age.

Young was I once, I walked alone,

and bewildered seemed in the way;

then I found me another and rich I thought me,

for man is the joy of man.

Per Wästberg, Swedish Academy Chair, on Stig

There are perhaps only three contemporary Swedish authors of the highest caliber who have reached the wider world: the poets Gunnar Ekelöf and Tomas Tranströmer, and Stig Dagerman, who in spite of his death at 31 lives on in new editions and research, especially in France where he is considered a Nordic existentialist in the tradition of Camus. This philosophy aside – rife during the 1940s and 50s – Dagerman ploughs the deepest grooves of existence. And it is from this chasm of dark poetry that he has been held up as a role model for our time.

Literary Nobel Laureate JMG Le Clézio speaks of Dagerman’s iconoclasm, his wild imagination and self-destructive humor, his mixture of curse and despair. Concluding his preface to Island of the Doomed,  Le Clézio writes: “With humble gratitude to Stig Dagerman who consumed by his own fire showed us the way.“

Dagerman’ essay Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable was separately published in France and has been reprinted for decades. In France, of Swedish classics, only Strindberg is better known. Dagerman’s blend of anguish and intellectualism has won him readers, particularly among young people who may be afraid of adult responsibility but seek an earnest discussion about the meaning of life. In France, some twenty famous authors have testified about their experiences reading Stig Dagerman’s novels, particularly A Burnt Child and Wedding Worries. He has been revived, not least through his dramas, also in Italy and Germany, where most of his work has been published. In the USA, a new translation of short stories, Sleet, was recently published and met with strong response.

stighalsduk

From the start, Dagerman was a European witness. A poet and a reporter, a dramatist and not least a masterful author of Dagsedlar, daily poems published in the newspaper where he worked – bitingly ironic, always siding with the vulnerable. Eleven volumes of his collected writings appeared in Sweden in the 1980s and testify to the versatility and mastery of language.  But also his despair, that so many have come to identify with as if it is of their own time. Dagerman worked across many fronts. A loner who sometimes was drawn to the glitter of high society; an eroticist in search of the mother who had given him up at birth.

He is a role model today because Dagerman was one of the few who stood for human rights, no matter which way the wind blew. Tirelessly attentive and fierce against dictators in the Eastern Bloc, rearmament and racism in the USA, Swedish compliance in the case of Raoul Wallenberg and the Catalina plane downed by the Russians. He stood up for the rights of the individual against the powers that be, for the tortured and imprisoned against a hangman’s pains of power.

The role of literature to him was to fight for the freedom of the individual and lay bare the meaning of freedom. He considered a State’s insistence on the subjugation of its citizens, whether on a greater or smaller scale, a deadly illness. This theme of the individual vs. the collective runs through his novel Island of the Doomed. Another theme he will return to, again and again, is the failure of honesty and disclosure as a road to empowerment and the possibilities of self-deception.

stigseries

It is said that all great literature is about love and death. In Dagerman’s case: much death, little love. He bears the middle name of a drowned man. With absentee parents, he was raised by a beloved grandfather who was stabbed to death by a madman. His grandmother died of grief soon thereafter. His closest friend died in an accident. It seemed to him as if death and suffering was drawn to him. Anguish was his to inherit. Two things fill me with terror: the Executioner within me and the blade of the guillotine above me [from The Snake]. But there was also joy and tenderness, a hearty dose of humor and angry protestation against the abuse of power. Nearly seventy years ago, he was appointed Cultural Editor of The Worker, a daily that offered generous column space to young writers. I myself began writing there as a 17-year old and met Dagerman in the smoky corridors of the Klara Folkets Hus. He was a shy person, least of all opinionated, tolerant even, in the company of rich and poor alike, and humorous to boot.  At  dinner with publisher Carl Björkman, I watched Dagerman pick up the phone at 3 a.m., ever fascinated by the facility of technology, and call Sven Aurén in Paris. He was one of the authors signed by the publishing house and a reporter for radio and the daily Svenska Dagbladet. Aurén was awoken by Why aren’t you here, we miss you, and flew into a rage that he hadn’t been invited.

Dagerman has proven to be timeless in spite of his writing being peppered by markers of the 1940s: the ice-block melting in the hallway, the radio in the place of honor in the living-room, and the water streaming down the window of the fish store. Wedding Worries, his novel anchored in the farming society of a bygone era, sets the stage for a timeless play about guilt and death – inhabited by characters observed through the eyes of a child: magnified, grotesque, frightening. Like in a ballet, each take form in light reflected by others, and the novel’s famous raps on the window pane carry a message to them all – about another possible world, about duty and joy, about the friend for whom everywhere I seek. In short: about our need for consolation.

I heard Stig Dagerman read his poem Birgitta Suite at a high-school for girls at Bohusgatan in Stockholm. I have heard few people read as beautifully and gently. In this piece, he moved from anguish to longing, from fearfulness to becoming his own “key to freedom”, and here love is the answer to the question of freedom. Who knows what freedom is, Birgitta, if not the one whose love is boundless?

stigseries1

In 1943, when Dagerman was given an exemption to marry because he was under-age, he acquired two parents-in-law who were anti-Nazi Anarcho-Syndicalist activists and who miraculously had eluded the concentration camps. Annemarie Götze became a Swedish citizen through marriage, and that meant protection. Stig moved into the home of his parents-in-law where other refugees gathered, and that gave him a window onto Europe’s struggles and destruction. At the same time, in this home in working-class Stockholm, he rediscovered some of the calm assurance of his grandparents’ farm.

In November 1950, Stig Dagerman met actress Anita Björk and would live with her for four years. It was in their joint home that he struggled with what might have become a great work, that shimmering fragment: A Thousand Years With God. He wanted to be seen and heard, but still not reveal himself. He veiled himself but came to be seen with clearer clarity. Dagerman drills into a private well, an existential current springs forth, and from the darkness a robust vitality is unleashed. He speaks for those who are vulnerable and those who search for answers to eternal questions. It is among young people that he still has a majority of his readers.

stigdrawing

Dagerman said that he was suffering from a chronic self-hatred, and an immutable predisposition that would harm others. He needed death like a tightrope walker his stabilizing stick. I only care about that which I never receive: confirmation that my words have touched the world’s heart [from Our Need for consolation Is Insatiable]. In uttermost solitude, space starts to sing. It is in the proximity of death that his prose becomes most urgent. Guilt, anxiety and fear run deep in most of his writing. In Dagerman’s work no one manages to establish real human contact. My lack of freedom is my fear of living. His friend, the poet Werner Aspenström, called him an unrealized death-mystic and felt that his service in the world was like a guilt-ridden apology for a secret longing for reconciliation beyond it. A dream of salvation without religious connotation: I beg for reconciliation and community but all I will receive is an aesthetic appraisal.

Still, it can be argued that freedom is the key word in his writing, and that a novel like Wedding Worries should be read primarily as an affirmation of the possibilities of individual freedom. Here, he is far from being a pessimist obsessed by angst, and instead someone who finds freedom in down-to-earth conscious pragmatism like make do with what you have. 

Stig Dagerman once discussed his novel A Burnt Child at Stockholm University and outlined his manifesto: I believe in solidarity, compassion and love as the last white shirts of mankind. Above all other virtues, I hold a form of love called forgiveness. /…/  It is this goodness that exists in every human being that makes it possible for us to expect and provide consolation. [from Do We Believe In Mankind?]

And: One thing only is in your power: to treat a fellow human well. [from the poem A Brother Gained]

PW1

— Speech at the inauguration of Manuskript, sculpture by artist Lars Kleen to commemorate Stig Dagerman — Enebyberg, Stockholm, May 2014

Translation by Saskia Vogel and Lo Dagerman

For One Day A Year, Let’s Make Believe….

In February 1953, Stig pens one of his daily occasional poems (Sw. dagsedlar) for publication in The Worker. He titles it One Day A Year. Very similar in tone to John Lennon’s Imagine. Stig’s poem is well-known in Sweden, inspiring, among other things, the Dagerman Award given annually by the Stig Dagerman Society (Read more).

EN DAG OM ÅRET                                               ONE DAY A YEAR

En dag om året borde alla låtsas                       For one day a year, let’s make believe

Att döden vilar i ett vitt schatull.                       that Death rests in a well-hewn box.

Inga stora illusioner krossas                              No grand illusions get blown to bits

Och ingen skjuts för fyra dollars skull.            And for a dollar’s sake, no one gets shot.

Världskatastrofen ligger lugnt och stilla         World Calamity lies sound asleep,

Emellan lakan på ett snyggt hotell.                   calm between sheets at a first class hotel.

Inget rep gör någon broder illa,                         No rope encumbers a brother’s breath,

och ingen syster slumrar vid ett slutet spjäll.  and no sister slumbers by a gas-filled vent.

Inga män blir plötsligt sönderbrända              No men are suddenly charred by fire,

och ingen dör på gatorna just då.                      and no one dies in the streets right then.

Det är lögn, det kan väl hända                            All lies, I know, yet still I contend:

Jag bara menar: vi kan låtsas så.                      for one day a year, let’s just pretend.

– Stig Dagerman, February 23, 1953

Translation by Lo Dagerman in collaboration with Nancy N. Carlson and Brian Levy

On Seeking And Offering Refuge

  

Flykten valde oss

Fågeln väljer flykten. Vi valde den icke.
Flykten valde oss. Därför är vi här.
Ni som ej blev valda – men ändå frihet äger,
hjälp oss att bära den tunga flykt vi bär!

Bojan väljer foten. Vi valde att vandra.
Natten var barmhärtig. Nu är vi här.
Ni är för många, kanske den frie trygge säger.
Kan vi bli för många som vet vad frihet är?

Ingen väljer nöden. Vi valde den icke.
Den valde oss på vägen. Nu är vi här.
Ni som ej blev valda! Vi vet vad frihet väger!
Hjälp oss att bära den frihet som vi bär!

Stig Dagerman
Dagsedlar (21.4 1953)

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

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

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 ChildWhen 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

Stig Into Turkish

by Halil Gôkhan, Writer and Editor of KAFEKÜLTÜR in IstanbulIf 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 .

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.

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.

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