The Snake (Ormen, 1945). Translation and introduction by Laurie Thompson. Quartet Books, London, 1995. ISBN 0-7043-0241-1.
Written during WWII, The Snake is set in a nervously neutral Sweden on military alert. Dagerman, an army conscript and anarcho-syndicalist, uses the day-to-day setting of military service as a backdrop for an exploration of social justice and the psychology of fear.
The first part of the book, Irene, is about a young woman who works at an army camp and is drawn to Bill, a sadistic soldier. In the second part, We Can’t Sleep, anxiety-infused experiences of Dagerman’s alter ego, Scriber, and fellow conscripts are laid bare. In the last chapter, Scriber spells out his vision for how to conquer fear with an absurd disastrous ending.
This is Dagerman’s first novel, published when he was 22 years old. It took reviewers by surprise: “So powerfully and convincing a debut, that it is unsurpassed by any other Swedish author in this century”, exclaimed Olof Lagercrantz, the editor of the daily Dagens Nyheter.
“The Snake is a book about fear, the strongest of all human instincts, which the author dissects with clear and cool-headed intellectualism. He sets out to investigate how terror grips hold of a group of people and how they react to its hold, each according to his or her own psychological makeup. The author wants to establish the thesis that it is necessary to acknowledge the primal anxiety in man, not to deny it. To coexist with anxiety is the only way of life that can offer man at least a small possibility of meeting himself.”
—Stig Dagerman, original backcover text to Ormen, 1945 (translation by Lo Dagerman)
About The Snake“Dagerman’s novel is a cry for individual responsibility and freedom, as well as a spirited work of resistance to the conventions of bourgeois life, which restrain and stupefy people. And it is a call for free thought and speech to clarify what should be done.” Read more
—Siri Hustvedt, Introduction to Swedish Edition, 2010
“It is what I have experienced. I remember it now. It was somewhere deep inside me, hidden in my past and the words have penetrated the zone of silence and brought with them the images…” Read more
—JMG Le Clézio, Review of French Edition, Les lettres modernes, 1972
“The role of the writer becomes one of what could be likened to the dialectical movement of disharmony. Both form and content have the purpose to wake up the reader, put into motion the journey whose force is an ever-growing awareness.” Read more
—Lotta Lotass, Presentation at Dagerman Symposium, November 2010
Siri Hustvedt Talks about The Snake
Authors Siri Hustvedt, Kerstin Ekman, P.O. Enquist, Lotta Lotass, and Agneta Pleijel give their views of Stig Dagerman’s significance at the seminar Dramaten& Stig Dagerman.
Feature 1966 (B/W) Director Hans Abramson. Christina Schollin received a Guldbagge (Sw. equivalent of an Oscar) for her portrayal of Irene. Available from Sandrews Filmpärlor.
Out of print. Some used copies available on Amazon.com and www.dagerman.us.
Editions and Translations
- Swedish: Ormen. 1945 (Steinsvik), 1955 (Norstedts), 1964 (Ving), 1973 (PAN), 1981 (Norstedt Samlade Skrifter 1), 1985 (Månpocket), 1990 (PAN/Norstedts), 1995 (Norstedts), 2004 (Panpocket), 2010 (Norstedts)
- English: The Snake. 1995 (Quartet Books)
- Dutch: De slang. 1988 (Meulenhoff)
- Finnish: Käärme. 1968 (Weilin & Göös)
- French: Le serpent. 1966 (Denoël), 1993 (Gallimard), 2001 (Denoël)
- German: Die Schlange. 1985 (Suhrkamp)
- Greek. 2017
- Portuguese: A serpente. 2000 (Antígona)
- Slovakian: Had. 1977 (Slovensky spisovatel)
- Spanish: La serpiente. 1990 (Alfaguara)
Read more from Siri Hustvedt
“It is acutely aware of the unspeakable horrors of the war, the sadism, the blood, and destruction, but none of these explains the book’s power. The allegory, the symbolism, the bleeding metaphors work because they are embodied in characters and scenes of genuine psychological force and nuance, because the visual world of the novel is astutely observed and refuses banal conventions, and because the narration has an intensity and drive that is irresistible.”
Read more from JMG Le Clézio
“…rather than writing beautiful sentences and lie and say that literature is a simple pastime, rather than thinking of these images as cockchafers killed by cyanide and say, ‘Yes, Dagerman, of course … Yes, Camus, Kafka, Strindberg, yes … It’s true …. Salinger, maybe, particularly in the last story … But Nerval, or realism, yes populism. That is to say Faulkner, Light in August of course. The War. Film. And so on.’ Rather than trying to catch that which is not true other than precisely at its point of flight, it is better to let the book act as a whole. To touch it, to sense its life, to read, write, tearing the book apart. Only the object can save us. It is the delicate part of the message, the tenderness, the tentativeness, the fragility. Because of it, you may try to say, as if the door could open and Scriber enter and sit down with a glass of beer in front of the cultural critic: Hello, Stig Dagerman!”
Translation from Swedish and French by Lo Dagerman.
Read more from Lotta Lotass
“If writing is a simple pastime, then I want to walk out into the dusk with blackened feet and befriend the snakes and the little grey desert rat. If writing means the difference between life and death to a man; leave no sandals behind, and beware of the rocks. The snakes now hunt my heel, and the desert rat disgusts me.”
Thus reads the motto for SD’s fist novel The Snake. The words are attributed to Scriber, the writer in the novel, by Dagerman called his ‘imagined double’. To Scriber, as to Dagerman himself, the harmonic ideal – writing as pastime – becomes an expression of an attitude that is unreflective and barren, and from his mouth flows the action program that has been called representative of the literate 40’s. Says Scriber:
“It has been shown unfortunately, that quiet contentment has a certain tendency to degenerate into belching and overeating. And in a world full of happiness-seeking belchers, the most important thing of all may be a sense of being torn apart and the ability to feel fear. That’s why I want to pull down all the chicken-wire put up around our fear, open up the gates for the snakes in the snake sanctuaries, and put broken glass in the bathtubs of all those who claim to have sought and found happiness, because theirs is a cruel occupation in a world where there are so many lone people.” (p. 237)
Translation by Lo Dagerman.