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Stig Dagerman, Bränt barn (A Burnt Child)

Norstedts,  2010. ISBN: 9789113023151

Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2010:2

This review also covers Tysk höst (View Details)

Stig Dagerman was the Swedish Wunderkind of the 1940s. Few writers in any language were blessed with so much natural talent. He was proclaimed a genius, and especially praised for his prose writings; but he was also an outstanding poet and a dramatist of unusual potential. Between 1945 and 1949 he published four novels, six plays, and a large number of poems (most were dagsverser, satirical comments on contemporary happenings, but some were lyrics of haunting beauty). Sweden was nominally neutral in World War II and was spared the physical devastation that ravaged most of the rest of Europe, but its literature reflected the Angst characteristic of the time, and no writer embodied this as convincingly as Dagerman. As Olof Lagercrantz showed in his widely praised biography (Stig Dagerman, 1958), the Angst-ridden atmosphere of much of Dagerman’s writing was a reflection of the author’s inner turmoil, and after a series of crises, he found himself unable to write anything of substance. He started but failed to finish several novels and plays, although he continued to write his dagsverser, published almost every day in the anarcho-syndicalist daily Arbetaren. Sweden, and indeed the literary world beyond his homeland, was stunned to read of his suicide in November, 1954, at the age of 31. But his novels continued to be read and admired, not least by the younger generation who recognised only too well the overwhelming passions and emotions and fears characteristic of Dagerman’s works, and sympathised with his politics – basically socialist and in support of the underdog, but always insisting that the ultimate value was freedom of the individual. Dagerman’s writing genius continued to be revered by Swedish novelists of subsequent generations who do not hesitate to acknowledge their debt – among the most prominent of contemporary Dagerman disciples are Björn Ranelid and Mikael Niemi. In the early 1980s Norstedts published a collected edition of Dagerman’s works in eleven volumes, edited brilliantly by Hans Sandberg. Around the same time a Dagerman Society was founded, and it is no small way thanks to Dagermansällskapet and its energetic chairman Bengt Söderhäll that Norstedts have launched a new collected edition, each volume reproducing Sandberg’s extremely useful notes, and with a specially written foreword. This reviewer is not aware of the reason for beginning the new edition with A Burnt Child and German Autumn, rather than re-publishing the works in chronological order; but it makes sense to do so. A Burnt Child is the most accessible of Dagerman’s novels, more realistic in style than the first two but nevertheless innovative in its narrative technique – chapters written in the conventional third-person alternate with letters written by the main character, Bengt, usually to himself, and the reader is challenged to work out the truth on the basis of conflicting accounts of the same situation. It has always been Dagerman’s most widely read (and translated) novel, and is hence a good introduction for first-time Dagerman readers. But it is also fascinating for readers already acquainted with his works, since in his preface, Per Olov Enquist argues that it is the best of the four. This is certainly not what most critics would have maintained in years gone by. The Snake (1945) was greeted by reviewers as a brilliant novel that typified the mood, fears and aspirations of the 1940s; but Island of the Doomed (1946) was almost universally acclaimed as Dagerman’s masterpiece. Memorably described in one review as ‘the flying fortress of 1940s attitudes and beliefs’, the novel incorporated a mass of Existentialist principles and premises, with references to Kierkegaard, Sartre, Freud and many more, as seven survivors of a shipwreck are cast away on a desert island inhabited by menacing iguana lizards, and instead of trying to escape, argue about an image to be scratched into a rock which will be a symbol of their attitude to life, to be pondered over when their dead bodies are eventually discovered. But in the special Dagerman supplement of Swedish Book Review (1984), Olof Lagercrantz wrote: ‘Twenty-five years ago I considered De dömdas ö to be the best of Dagerman’s works, seduced into that judgement by the atmosphere of Angst and the many suicides. I still regard it as a great work of art, and a central contribution to the ideological debate. Now, however, the last of the novels, Bröllopsbesvär (Wedding Worries), stands out as the masterpiece.’ Obviously, attitudes change as years go by. P. O. Enquist is convinced that the masterpiece is A Burnt Child. What will be the verdict of the 21st century? Readers, new and old, can begin their assessment by reading (or re-reading) A Burnt Child, then make up their minds as the other novels appear. Enquist also makes it clear why it is appropriate that German Autumn should be one of the first of Dagerman’s books to be re-published. The essays it contains first appeared as articles in the newspaper Expressen between December 1946 and April 1947.The author writes as a neutral observer, but what he saw and experienced was so incomprehensibly shocking that he can hardly have been unscarred. In his first two novels his imagination had run riot and a mass of imagery expresses the relationship of humans with the world around them. But after the German visit Dagerman failed to complete many projects, his marriage collapsed, he was treated in hospital for a nervous breakdown, and in his final two novels he retreats into himself for motifs. In Bränt barn the main character Bengt struggles to be honest with himself and his emotions as he betrays his fiancée, his father and the memory of his mother – Dagerman had similar problems following an affair with his mother-in-law; and no doubt significantly Wedding Worries, based on experiences of his childhood in Älvkarleby, was originally entitled Swan Song. The last of the essays in German Autumn is entitled ‘Literature and Suffering’, and Dagerman asks:‘How far is it between literature and suffering? Does the distance depend on the kind of suffering, on the proximity of suffering, or the intensity of suffering?’ He develops and plays with and philosophises on the image, and suggests that some poets, some artists are remembered ‘not because they were hungrier or suffered more than anybody else, but because they were aware of the possibilities of suffering, they had tried to measure the distance between art and suffering.’ Much of Elfriede Jelinek’s foreword is based on this and similar images, often expressed in a torrent of words that is not always easy to interpret, and indeed, sometimes seems impenetrable. Reviewers of German Autumn when it first appeared were more or less unanimous in the view that it was a brilliant depiction of the suffering, devastation and moral vacuum in warravaged Germany, with a starving population barely surviving in bombedout ruins and often flooded cellars. Even today, over sixty years after the end of the war, it has the power to send a chill down the spine of readers, and convince them of Dagerman’s unerring powers of observation and perception, and his extraordinary talents as a writer. Readers may well ask themselves, as P. O. Enquist did, whether the horrific reality he came up against in Germany in the autumn of 1946 was so unbearable that he was forced to dig down into his own reallife experiences in order to write his final two novels, and having done so, was still so devastated that his creativity shrivelled and died.

Also by Stig Dagerman

  • Tysk höst (German Autumn). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2010:2.
  • Brev (Letters). Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2002:2.

Other reviews by Laurie Thompson

Other reviews in SBR 2010:2

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