Stig Dagerman, born in 1923, spends his childhood on the small farm in Älvkarleby of his paternal grandparents. His unwed mother gave birth on the farm but left shortly thereafter, never to come back. He meets her again only when he is an adult. Dagerman’s father, a traveling day laborer, eventually settles in Stockholm where his son joins him at the age of eleven.
Through his father, Dagerman soon comes into contact with anarchism and its ideological offspring, syndicalism, and joins the Syndicalist Youth Federation. At nineteen, he becomes the editor of Storm, the youth paper, and at twenty-two he is appointed the cultural editor of Arbetaren (The Worker), then a daily newspaper for the syndicalist movement. It is in the fertile ground of the newspaper world that he meets fellow writers and relishes in polemical writing. In addition to editorials and articles, Dagerman come to write over a thousand daily satirical poems commenting on current events. He calls Arbetaren his “spiritual birthplace”.
Stig and his grandparents on their farm in Älvkarleby, Sweden.
Dagerman’s horizons are greatly expanded by his marriage in 1943 to Annemarie Götze, an eighteen-year old German refugee. Her parents, Ferdinand and Elly, are prominent anarcho-syndicalists, and the family escapes Nazi-Germany to join the center of the movement in Barcelona. As Spanish fascists brutally crush the anarcho-syndicalist social experiment there, the Götzes flee through France and Norway, with Hitler’s army at their heels, to a neutral Sweden. Dagerman and his young wife live with his parents-in-law, and it is through this family, and the steady stream of refugees that passes through their home, that Dagerman feels he can sense the pulse of Europe.
In 1945, Stig Dagerman is twenty-two and publishes his first novel: Ormen (The Snake). It is an anti-militaristic story with fear as its main theme, channeling the war-time zeitgeist. Positive reviews earn him the reputation as a brilliant young writer of great promise. He leaves Arbetaren to write full-time. The following year, Dagerman publishes De Dömdas Ö (The Island of the Doomed), completed over a fortnight and he says it is as if “let’s god do the writing”. Using nightmarish imagery, this is an allegory centered on seven shipwrecked people, doomed to die, each seeking a form of salvation.
Stig and Annemarie’s wedding, August 1943. From the left: Ester Jansson, Ferdinand Götze, Annemarie Dagerman, Egon Dagerman, Stig Dagerman, Helmer Jansson, Elly Götze.
Critics see similarities in Dagerman’s work to that of William Faulkner, Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. He becomes the main representative of a group of Swedish writers called Fyrtiotalisterna (“the writers of the 1940s”) who channel pervasive feelings of fear, guilt and meaninglessness common in the wake of the horrors of World War II and in looming Cold War.
In 1946, Dagerman becomes a Swedish household name through a newspaper travel log from war-torn Germany, later published with the title Tysk Höst (German Autumn). Rather than blaming the German people for the war’s atrocities, calling them crazed or evil, Dagerman portrays the human ordinariness of the men and women who now scrape by in the ruins of war. To him, the root of disaster lies in the anonymity of mass-organizations that obstruct empathy and individual responsibility, qualities without which the human race is threatened by extinction.
Stig, Annemarie, and their two sons.
” 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. “—From ” Do we believe in man? “ 1950, Stig Dagerman, Essäer och journalistik, transl. Lo Dagerman.
The short story collection Nattens lekar (The Games of Night), published in 1947, meets with high acclaim. Many of the stories are set on his grandparents’ farm, and are written from a child’s perspective. Dagerman uses a naturalistic style that appeals to a wider audience. This same year his first play Den dödsdömde (The Man Condemned to Death) opens in Stockholm to rave reviews.
The most famous of Dagerman’s short stories, “Att döda ett barn” (“To Kill A Child”), exemplifies the strong influence of film on his writing. In image after image, it portrays in riveting detail how a series of perfectly ordinary events can be a prologue to horror.
In 1948, he writes three more plays and publishes his third novel Bränt barn (A Burnt Child). The story is a psychological account of a young man’s infatuation with his father’s mistress, and is written in a tight, naturalistic style.
Dagerman will write only one more novel: Bröllopsbesvär (Wedding Worries), published in 1949, and regarded by some as his best. In this novel, he returns one final time to the setting of his grandparents’ farm and characters to describe the human condition, including a search for forgiveness and salvation. In this book, Dagerman, who throughout his career experiments with different literary styles, makes ample use of stream-of-consciousness as a way of penetrating a character.
Stig, Anita, and their daughter, Lo.
After his early and rapid successes, expectations keep rising, not least his own. Dagerman struggles with depression and an onset of writer’s block. He becomes restless in the now suburbanized Götze family, and is drawn to the medium of theater. As a playwright, and even a one-time director, he meets friends and lovers within the theater world, leaving his family for periods at a time. Eventually, Dagerman breaks away for good to live with and later marry the celebrated actress Anita Björk with whom he gets a daughter. But the break proves difficult, emotionally and financially. Dagerman feels guilty leaving his young sons, and takes on mounting debt to support his first family. The assumption is that the debt will be paid when he publishes his next book.
Battling deepening depression and a debilitating writer’s block, Dagerman pens a magazine essay “Vårt behov av tröst är omättligt” (“Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable”) about his thoughts of suicide. He also writes “Tusen år hos gud” (“A Thousand Years with God”)—part of a new novel he is planning—which signals a turn to a more mystical bent in his writing.
In spite of his struggles, Dagerman continues to deliver his daily satirical verses for Arbetaren, the last one published on November 5, 1954, the day after his suicide—he has closed the doors of his garage while running the engine.
Stig Dagerman is buried in Älvkarleby. His grave was moved in the 1960s from Stockholm.
To die is to travel / ever so briefly / from tree branch / to solid ground.
—from Dagerman’s poem Höst (Autumn), engraved on his tombstone